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The failure of "tough-on-crime" tactics

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We're at a point where Governor Carcieri, legislative leaders, and A.T. Wall, director of the state Department of Corrections, basically agree on the need to expand treatment options for non-violent criminal offenders. Doing so is smart policy and more cost-effective than keeping such criminals warehoused at the ACI. Yet making progress on this front remains difficult, as Te-Ping Chen writes in this week's Phoenix:

It was after midnight, and Dawn Jacques lay sleepless in her cell at the Adult Correctional Institutions, shuddering. Bathed in sweat, she stared at the ceiling for hours until it blurred. When the occasional wave of nausea ran through her, she lurched toward the toilet, vomiting.

It could have been the first time she was incarcerated or the tenth. Jacques, a 31-year-old from Cranston, has been addicted to heroin and in and out of jail for 10 years, and the long nights of withdrawal were the same every time.

“It felt like I was going to die,” Jacques says. Jail made her feel “miserable,” she says, “like [she] had no choice but to keep using.” And upon leaving prison, that’s exactly what she would do: return to the streets and start shooting up again.

Across the state, Jacques’s story is a familiar one. America’s drug war has devolved into a domestic quagmire, costing $500 billion without discernible success. Yet while a wealth of studies indicate that treating addicts is more cost-effective than incarcerating them, access to treatment remains limited in many states, including Rhode Island. In fact, according to data from the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rhode Island has the second-highest rate of addicts that need treatment but don’t receive it.

Not surprisingly, the state prison system is feeling the crush. Since 1976, the ACI’s population has exploded by 457 percent, with what Department of Corrections Director A.T. Wall calls an “ever-increasing number of offenders with substance abuse problems being swept [in]” — and with similar cost increases for the state. Today, 70 percent of ACI inmates report substance abuse problems (mostly heroin, alcohol, and cocaine). And without treatment, the majority of these offenders who are released will end up imprisoned again.

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