Community Rehabilitation: Safer Communities for Less Money

Daniel J. Dew Jun 09, 2017

A devoted budget hawk on government waste, Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, has saved Ohio taxpayers millions of dollars throughout his career. And we applaud him for that yeoman’s effort. Curiously, Mr. Yost’s letter to the Senate Finance Committee and recent editorial in The Columbus Dispatch urged the General Assembly to remove the Target Community Alternatives to Prison (TCAP) program from the state’s two-year budget. 

Concerned that TCAP will create a kind of “double secret probation” made famous by the Delta fraternity brothers in Animal House, Mr. Yost opposes including in the budget a measured criminal justice reform that could not only save taxpayers millions, but address a rising threat to our communities. The TCAP program would allow certain low-level offenders to remain in local corrections facilities and treatment centers rather than spend time—and more taxpayer money—incarcerated in state prisons. 

Strong evidence indicates that “lock’em up and throw away the key” policies make our communities less safe and come with a hefty price tag. Ohio spends $1.7 billion every year on corrections—$25,000 per inmate per year—and research suggests we are overpaying for our investment. Study after study has demonstrated that evidence based criminal justice reforms make communities safer while saving constituents money. Even “hang’em high” Texas, not known for being soft on crime, has shown that violent crime rates can fall even as state prison populations dwindle.

Criminal justice programs like TCAP benefit both budgets and public safety. More than 95 percent of those who go to prison will someday return to their community. Imprisoning an offender removes him from the community for a short time, but eventually he’ll be back, making it imperative that he leaves prison better—not worse—than when he was put away. Unfortunately, prison generally has the opposite effect.

Studies show that people who serve time in prison commit more and increasingly severe crimes when they get out. Locking low-level offenders in with hardened career criminals tends to result in more hardened criminals who have been “taught” more tricks of the criminal trade. As those low-level offenders are released with their newly learned “skills,” they are too often alienated and unable to secure honest work and many will return to a life of crime.

The TCAP program helps break this vicious cycle. With TCAP, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC) would divert criminal justice funds to counties in order to create or expand rehabilitation programs for low-level, non-violent offenders. These community-based rehabilitation programs have been shown to be twice as effective at one-third the cost of time spent in state prison. 

Of course, TCAP is not for everyone, and those offenders too dangerous for community-based programs would be ineligible for the program. Like many, Mr. Yost is understandably concerned that TCAP will make heroin traffickers ineligible for prison, sending them to local community programs instead. But a “trafficker” would only qualify for TCAP if she possesses less than one gram of heroin, does not possess a firearm, is not near a school, and is charged with only one count. In many states, possessing one gram of heroin does not rise to the level of “trafficking.”  Instead, such low-level possession in those states is misdemeanor possession that does not merit prison.

Heroin “traffickers” with less than one gram are usually small-time sellers trying to support their own habit. Those suffering such addition stare down death with every dose. If death is no deterrent, neither is prison.

As Ohio’s heroin and opioid epidemic worsens we cannot arrest and incarcerate our way out of the problem. That solution has been tried. And it failed. TCAP, on the other hand, will provide state resources for communities to treat low-level, non-violent heroin and drug addicts to alleviate demand. By treating and rehabilitating addicts through community-based programs rather than incarceration, TCAP will not only help addicts, but will also reduce the discouraging number of criminals-in-training that inevitably return to our neighborhoods and playgrounds.

To borrow again from the fraternal brothers of Animal House, this situation absolutely requires that we stop trying “really futile and stupid gestures.” It is time to decrease demand for heroin, not just supply.