Push for Drug Rehab Over Incarceration Faltering, Study Says

By Mary Otto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Maryland continues to spend far more on sending drug offenders to prison than to treatment programs despite a high-profile bid by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to reverse that trend, according to a report released today by the Justice Policy Institute.

The study by the D.C.-based think tank found that the state has made "slow progress" in diverting nonviolent offenders from jail and prison. For each dollar spent to put them behind bars, the state provided just 26 cents through its Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration to treat drug-dependent adults referred by the criminal justice system, the report estimated.

"We can afford to treat people," said the report's author, Kevin Pranis. "The resources are being misspent."

But Pranis credited Maryland with attempting to move away from a "war on drugs" mentality. The number of people admitted to drug treatment through court referral rose 28 percent between 2000 and 2004, while the number of people sentenced to prison for drug offenses fell by 7 percent.

The use of community-based treatment programs varied widely by jurisdiction, with Montgomery County and other prosperous jurisdictions more likely to opt for such programs over incarceration, according to the study.

"We need to look at what some counties are doing well and what others need help on," Pranis said. "We are looking at what they do with state money."

Yet statewide, funding for treatment doesn't go far enough, and some advocates fear that ground has been lost since Ehrlich (R) took office in 2003. The economic slowdown put the brakes on state spending, and even after the economy rebounded, that spending has not kept up with rising costs, according to the report.

The state has emphasized treating inmates while they are in prison rather than in the community through an Ehrlich program dubbed Project RESTART.

"With the money we have, we are trying to pour as many resources as we can into treatment and incarceration," said Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "We are really trying as best we can, but it's a tough battle."

The state's drug and alcohol agency currently has a budget of $137.5 million, reflecting an increase of $7 million in the past fiscal year but short of the $11 million advocates say is needed to treat the estimated 43,000 people needing drug and alcohol treatment.

The report recommends that the state commit an additional $30 million to the fiscal 2008 treatment budget to allow the program to catch up with cost increases and fill gaps in capacity.

Ehrlich announced Project RESTART in 2003 as an innovative approach helping inmates with their addictions before they are released, and he has often mentioned it during his reelection campaign. But the program has been slow to take off.

With a $5.2 million budget in fiscal 2006, Project RESTART boasted only two pilot sites among the state's 13 major prisons: the women's prison in Jessup and Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown.

"RESTART is a great idea," Pranis said, "but compared to the scale of the problem, it's a small piece. It's something that needs to happen behind the walls" of the prisons, "but when people get out, I think the Department of Public Safety would agree they need to continue to get support on the outside. Treatment in the community is critical."

Some within the Democrat-controlled General Assembly have questioned the program's effectiveness, but the program did get a budget increase in the spring -- an additional $524,000 to include pre-release centers, where prisoners prepare to leave the correctional system.

The administration remains dedicated to the program, Vernarelli said. "We really believe a recidivism rate of 49.7 percent is entirely too high," he said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company