Treatment pays off for inmates, society

By Chris Collins, The Baker City Herald

The link between drug and alcohol abuse and crime is so strong that it could better be described as a stout steel chain.

We're not talking cause and effect.

Drugs don't commit crimes, of course - people do.

Yet a cavalcade of research shows that large percentage of the

people who commit crimes also use, and in many cases abuse, drugs.

Which is why responsible prison systems - including Oregon's - try to cure inmates' addictions while they're incarcerated.

That approach is more expensive, but the extra dollars are well-spent.

Inmates are less likely to commit another crime after release, which

means fewer innocent victims and fewer people to keep locked up on the

taxpayers' dime.

The minimum-security Powder River Correctional Facility in Baker City is Oregon's leader in the effort to reduce recidivism by offering addiction treatment to inmates.

Unfortunately, a change in state law a few years ago has partially thwarted the state's effort to curb crime by using Powder River as a treatment center rather than merely a warehouse for inmates.

That change reduces the amount of time some inmates can trim from their sentence if they finish a drug treatment program at Powder River or any of the three other minimum-security prisons that have such programs.

Put simply, undergoing treatment is not as great an incentive as it used to be.

As a result, judges are less likely to include treatment as a requirement in inmates' sentence. The number of inmates required to enroll in a treatment program has dropped by about 40 percent over the past few years, according to the Oregon Department of Corrections.

What hasn't declined, though, is the number of inmates who could benefit from the sort of intensive therapy that's offered at Powder River.

But because the roster of inmates eligible for treatment has declined, the Department of Corrections decided recently to reduce the number of treatment beds at Powder River by 50 - from 178 to 128.

The decision has nothing to do with money, according to the Department of Corrections. The state can afford to maintain 178 treatment beds at Powder River; the dilemma is finding inmates to occupy those beds.

Powder River's inmate population will remain at 278, and the state won't lay off any employees at the prison.

However, New Directions Northwest Inc., the private Baker City firm that oversees the treatment program at Powder River, will pare its workforce by nine to 11 workers out of a total of about 35.

That amounts to about $700,000 in annual payroll - a significant cut in Baker County, where the unemployment rate has exceeded 8 percent for more than a year.

That short-term, local effect is bad.

But worse still is the potential for statewide crime rates to rise because fewer inmates are being treated for drug and alcohol problems.

That helping inmates overcome their addictions reduces crime is beyond dispute.

The Oregon Legislature should make it a priority, when it convenes in January, to ensure that every treatment bed state residents have paid for has an inmate assigned.

The Baker City Herald
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