Arizona isn’t exactly famous for their innovative and ethically minded justice systems, but it’s certainly paying attention to its numbers. Despite high incarceration rates, Arizona actually doesn’t have an exceptionally high rate of prisoners being held for nonviolent drug offenses, due in large part to shorter sentences, and recidivism hasn’t shown an increase since these shortened sentences were introduced. It was largely a budgetary move by the state, but it highlighted how ridiculous and ineffective mandatory minimum sentences are.
Now, Pima County in southern Arizona has taken another step. Their Drug Treatment Alternative Program (DTAP) is the first of its kind in the state, but it may not be the last.
The DTAP Model
The Program offers drug addicted defendants to enter a residential, therapeutic community treatment system for three years as an alternative to a prison sentence. The first three months are spent focusing on in-patient, residential drug treatment. The rest of the time is followed by recovery support services that include transitional housing, literacy services, higher education, job training and placement, and counseling. Drug testing, probation monitoring, and regular court hearings are also a part of the program.
The idea manifold – to rehabilitate individuals truly in need, to save money on non-violent offenders, and to reduce recidivism. The numbers line up, too. The Pima County Attorney’s Office states that putting a defendant through the DTAP program totals $12,593, which is less than half the cost of the average 14 month imprisonment. They also report almost twice the success of private prisons in keeping program participants from staying drug and crime free.
This is in part because the program focuses on those who are likely to benefit from it – those in trouble for actual addiction. For a defendant to enter, they must be facing a mandatory minimum sentence, have no history of violent or sex crimes, and have no other pending felonies. The attention is on those truly struggling with abuse.
It’s not the only model of its kind in the US, but it’s one of far too few. In 2012, some 23,000 persons were sent to federal prison for nonviolent drug offenses. About half of those people had little or no criminal history, and yet many of them will be serving multiple years as dictated by a mandatory minimum sentence.
Programs like DTAP offer an alternative model that provides actual help and access to necessary resources for drug addicted individuals, providing actual chances for rehabilitation.
Why Treatment Works
So why is therapeutic treatment better than prison? Aside from the clear services offered like transitional housing and career training and placement, treatment has long shown efficacy because it doesn’t operate on prison’s model of punish and release. Instead, it works at the root cause of the perceived criminal activity. It doesn’t punish the defendant for the past action as much as it does acknowledging the present circumstances caused by the past action, and working to address those circumstances to ensure the past action is not repeated in the future.
The cycle of crime and punishment is broken, and the program participant gets the benefits of the secondary services, which helps ensure that those seeking help don’t fall back on the addictive behaviors.
It’s not a perfect model, but it’s a lot better than just putting people in prison and offering them no assistance to deal with what is, at the end of the day, a matter of personal health and well being. If Arizona can do it, why not the rest of the nation?