Foundation Seeks to Keep Drug Offenders Out of Jail
by Nicole Richardson
If Maryland had similar legislation to California’s new Proposition 36, it would save about $108,872,820 annually by diverting drug offenders to treatment. Currently, the state spends about $22,365 per year to incarcerate an offender.
       First- and second-time drug offenders in Baltimore have several powerful allies working to get them into drug treatment centers rather than crowding the expanding jail system, says Robert Schwartz, M.D., Program Officer of Drug Addiction Treatment, Open Society Institute (OSI) in Baltimore.

       “We are funding an innovative program as part of our efforts to strengthen Baltimore city’s drug treatment system” he said.

       OSI provides grant support to the Baltimore Substance Abuse System (BSAS), which over the past two years has formed a committee composed of 13 nationally recognized drug treatment experts who advise BSAS.

       These experts track each drug treatment facility for such outcomes as positive results for urine drug tests, drug utilization rates, and addict retention in treatment, Dr. Schwartz said.

       With this data, OSI, BSAS, and the Baltimore City Health Department, directed by Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson, can determine which facilities are the most accountable and which strategies work best to keep people drug-free.

       “The more accountable a program is, the more funding it receives, [and] the better services we can provide to the public,” said Dr. Schwartz.

       The local goals of OSI complement those of its founder, billionaire George Soros, who has been using his sizable wealth to influence drug policy in several states.

       Soros, along with billionaire Peter Lewis and millionaire John Sperling, have financed several state ballot-box victories in behalf of drug offenders. Soros is largely responsible for getting Proposition 36 passed in California, which stipulates that state judges send first- and second-time non-violent drug offenders to treatment programs rather than prison.

       Proposition 36, which took effect on July 1, is expected to keep as many as 36,000 new convicts and parole violators out of California prisons each year, according to The Wall Street Journal.

       Maryland currently ranks number six in the nation for prison spending per capita. The state jailed 4,868 drug offenders last year, according a study done by Mother Jones magazine. Drug offenders comprised 21 percent of the 22,729 people incarcerated in Maryland in the year 2000.

       It costs about $22,365 per year to keep one person in jail in Maryland, according to Mother Jones spokesman Vince Beiser. If Maryland had similar legislation to California’s Proposition 36, the state would save roughly $108,872,820 by diverting drug offenders to treatment.

       Studies done by OSI and Mother Jones show that drug treatment centers are both cheaper and more effective in fighting the war on drugs. Their results are confirmed by the National Committee on Community Corrections, a research and advocacy group based in D.C. This organization reports that a typical inmate can cost taxpayers about $25,000 annually, “not counting the cost of prison construction, providing welfare for the family, or foster placement for the children.”

       The organization asserts that alternative sanctions such as drug and alcohol treatment cost $2,500 annually, and up to about $6,000 for intensive supervision.

       “At OSI-Baltimore, we believe that more of our resources should be focused on helping people make an effective, successful transition back into the community,” said Aurie Hall, OSI’s Program Officer of Crime, Communities & Culture, “rather than continuing to spend money to perpetuate a very expensive system that isn't working and does not increase public safety.”

       According to Ms. Hall, drug offender diversion programs represent a wide variety of service providers, including those that offer housing, drug addiction treatment, medical and mental health services, and employment training.

       “All of these programs are working with corrections and parole to create more effective partnerships,” she said. “And all of the programs are going into correctional facilities to recruit clients.”

       Mr. Soros is encouraging more effective and humane responses to the criminal justice system, Ms. Hall said. “He doesn’t think that that the war on drugs makes sense, and after it is explained to people, most agree with him.”

Nicole Richardson, a Mt. Rainier resident, is a freelance writer and a graduate student at the College of Journalism at the University of Maryland at College Park. She worked for the New York-based Black Enterprise Magazine prior to returning to school.


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This story was published on August 1, 2001.