County jail inmates who received methadone, an opiate substitute, took longer to return to jail than opiate addicts who were forced to quit cold turkey, a delay in re-incarceration that slows the revolving door of criminal justice, according to a study conducted by the University of New Mexico.
About a year ago, the chief of the Metropolitan Detention Center ignited debate when he tried to abruptly end the program, which is the only one in the country that provides methadone to jail inmates.
In mid-December, the Bernalillo County Commission voted to extend the methadone provider’s MDC contract for nine more months after seeing results of the UNM study.
The study found that inmates in the methadone maintenance program, which provides a daily dose of methadone to inmates already enrolled in a community-based methadone program, spent almost 40 days longer out of jail than their opiate-addicted counterparts not enrolled in a methadone program. That amounts to per-inmate savings to taxpayers of almost $2,700, according to the study, as taxpayers shell out around $69 to house an inmate per day.
The study published in early December, however, contains another finding that erases the savings: Inmates enrolled in the methadone program tended to stay in jail 36 days longer than other inmates. It’s unclear what causes methadone inmates to stay longer, though the program’s directors and others have a couple guesses – that methadone-receiving inmates are more comfortable in jail than those addicted to heroin, and that inmates getting methadone tend to prefer serving their full sentences and leaving jail without probation.
The unexpected result from the study has prompted at least one commissioner, Wayne Johnson, to ask for additional information in upcoming studies, though the commission hasn’t yet voted to approve funds for such an effort.
The UNM study’s finding that the methadone-receiving inmates stayed out of jail longer than other inmates also conflicts with national studies, according to the report.
“The last thing I want to do is throw money at a problem and say, ‘It’s working,’ and then forget about it,” Johnson said during the Dec. 14 commission meeting. The nine-month contract extension amounts to $258,000, though the county could be reimbursed through federal programs.
In December, MDC Chief Ramon Rustin announced that the methadone program was going to end, because he said the program was better suited outside jail walls. He also pointed out that many inmates awaiting sentencing to prison terms would have to quit methadone upon entering state correctional facilities.
The decision caused an uproar among “harm reduction” advocates, drug policy activists and doctors who saw the program as a way to make addicts more receptive to treatment and as a way to prevent drug-related crime. And they warned that safely weaning someone off methadone takes far longer than MDC was allowing.
Rustin said Thursday that he recognizes that the methadone program is keeping people out of jail longer, but he said that the amount of time those inmates stay out of jail appears to him to be on the low end when compared to other community programs that keep in touch with recently released inmates. Faith-based programs, for example, can be especially effective in preventing inmates from returning to jail, he said.
However, Darren Webb, the clinic director for Recovery Services, the contractor that provides the methadone, said the UNM study makes it clear that methadone maintenance programs like his work. As for the extended stays for inmates receiving methadone, he said he often talks to offenders in the program who say they opted to serve their full sentences at MDC and avoid probation, because they knew they’d have access to the methadone.
For addicts who need their heroin fix, Webb said, staying in jail for the full sentence is a taller order.
Journal staff writer Dan McKay contributed to this report