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Prison drug treatment can curb violent crime resurgence

As the new Congress considers its agenda, and with crime rising to record levels once again, one smart course of action would be massive expansion of drug treatment in prisons.

In its 2006 annual report, the FBI announced a 2.5 percent increase in violent crimes -- the largest increase in violent crime rates in 15 years. In Buffalo, however, violent crime increased much faster -- up 3.4 percent, to nearly 4,000 incidents in 2005 -- a third higher than the national rise, pushing Buffalo into the top 10 percent of U.S. cities.

With one of America's most famous correctional facilities nearby, Attica, housing 2,200 criminals, the nation and the region must be concerned about how we can actually curb this epidemic rather than continue the revolving door.

Prison drug treatment will target the repeating source of a huge chunk of the nation's new crime wave. The Buffalo News ran a superb series in September, "Jailhouse Highs," that begs for such solutions.

The connection between crime and drug abuse is clear. According to the U.S. Justice Department's "Drug Use and Crime" fact sheet, 68 percent of female arrestees and 67 percent of male arrestees tested positive in urine tests for illegal drugs -- cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine, opiates or PCP -- compared to 6 percent drug use in the population as a whole.

An Attica staff member in the superintendent's office told us that Attica "is not a drug specific prison." That's the problem. All prisons should be; none is.

Inmates nationwide aren't receiving the treatment that they need -- and that would stop criminal recidivism. A seven-year study, "Department of Justice Report, Drug Use and Dependence, State and Federal Prisoners, 2004," reported that only 14 percent of federal inmates who met the criteria for drug dependency received treatment from a trained professional. Only 39 percent of all drug-dependent inmates participated in any drug abuse programs.

During the Bush administration, overall drug-fighting initiatives -- including education, media advertising, prevention, science and treatment programs as well as high-intensity drug enforcement efforts -- have been cut 34 percent since 2001, from $19.2 billion to $12.7 billion.

It doesn't take a genius to realize these recent anti-drug budget cuts are at least partially responsible for the increase in violent crimes in the United States. As U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton has noted, "A large percentage of the violent crimes prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office involve individuals under the influence of methamphetamine or other illegal substances."

Methamphetamine isn't the only drug of major concern. Heroin has always been a problematic drug in the United States, but recent reports show a tripling over the last five years in abuse of "the new heroin," opiate painkillers such as OxyContin, Vicodin, Dilaudid, Codeine, Morphine and Fentanyl. Teens are the latest to come into this trend -- and perhaps the saddest to see in prison. Some 4.5 million youths, or 19 percent of U.S. teenagers, reported taking prescription painkillers, according to the Partnership for a Drug Free America last year.

Treatment works to reduce the use of these illegal drugs. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse Treatment Outcomes Study, "Methadone treatment reduced patients' heroin abuse by 70 percent, their criminal activity by 57 percent and increased their full-time employment by 24 percent."

Yet there are only six prison methadone programs in the entire United States (New York City, Baltimore, Providence, Orlando, Seattle and most recently, Albuquerque, started just this March).

Regarding the horrific drug methamphetamine, which engenders schizophrenia, violence and suicide, NIDA reports that "nine months after beginning therapy, 87 percent of patients treated for heavy or long-term methamphetamine abuse in California outpatient and residential programs were abstinent from all drugs."

Treatment has major economical benefits as well. The National Institute of Drug Abuse has concluded, "Every $1 invested in addiction treatment programs yields a return of between $4 and $7 in reduced drug-related crime, criminal justice costs and theft alone. When savings related to health care are included, total savings can exceed costs by a ratio of 12 to 1."

George Soros, a philanthropist who is contributing more than $10 million to cities for drug treatment, recently stated, "I want to help eliminate the enormous drug addiction treatment gap in the United States." Once upon a time the U.S. criminal justice system, not philanthropists, made criminal rehabilitation a fiscal responsibility.

Robert Weiner is a former spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Richard Bangs is a senior policy analyst at Robert Weiner Associates,

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