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Should cost figure into sentencing choices?

When sentencing a convicted defendant who is a substance abuser, should a judge consider the cost to taxpayers of incarceration versus treatment?

This question was posed to me by a friend who is a private business owner. He was wondering whether cost-benefit principles could be applied to the criminal justice system.

The simple answer is that as a judge, I primarily take into consideration the safety of the community when sentencing a defendant. If a defendant is dangerous, then I order incarceration. If not, then I order probation. Cost to the taxpayers generally does not figure into the equation.

But should it?

Or course. Judges should be as careful with taxpayer dollars as any other public servant. However, from a practical point of view, judges generally do not control how taxpayers’ monies are spent. The legislative and executive branches come up with a budget, and some of it is allocated to the courts.

As a judge, I typically have been allotted certain limited options with which to deal with habitual offenders who are chronic addicts and/or alcoholics. The primary option is incarceration.

This then begs the question which my friend was really asking: Should “the powers that be” fund and build substantive treatment program facilities instead of jails and prisons, only? Would that not be more cost-effective?

Hands down, treatment is more cost-effective than incarceration. In the long run, it pays handsome dividends.

In November 2012, the Journal of Crime and Delinquency reported on a study which found that if only 10 percent of drug-addicted offenders received drug rehabilitation instead of jail time, the criminal justice system would save $4.8 billion. If 40 percent of addicted offenders received treatment instead of jail, those savings would rise to $12.9 billion. And those were 2012 dollars. In 2017, the savings to taxpayers would be higher.

My anecdotal experience, too, has convinced me that treatment options are much more cost-effective than incarceration. And without a doubt, treatment reduces recidivism.

Metropolitan Court for years has offered substance abuse treatment in the form of specialty courts. Essentially, judges postpone sentencing until convicted defendants complete rigorous programs which involve intense supervision and various treatment modalities. Upon completion of these programs, the defendants serve no jail time except for the mandatory minimum as required by law.

The recidivism rates for the specialty courts are extremely low. These courts work. As an added bonus, the defendants pay for a significant portion of the program, which saves taxpayer dollars.

Unfortunately, specialty courts can accept only a limited number of participants – a number which is far exceeded by the number of convicted alcoholics and addicts who need treatment.

In addition to specialty courts, occasionally prosecutor and defense attorneys often have requested that I postpone sentencing until convicted defendants pay for and complete private in-patient treatment programs. I always approve such requests. No taxpayer dollars are spent. And if someone does not complete treatment, then I can still order incarceration.

But what of the convicted alcoholics and addicts who cannot afford to pay for inpatient treatment? What about those who would be eligible for our specialty courts but for whom there are no slots available? This group of defendants constitute a significant portion of jail and prison inmates, I suspect. To realistically break the cycle of addiction and habitual crime for these offenders, judges need real substantive treatment options.

In Bernalillo County, we have limited detox and inpatient treatment facilities for indigent substance abusers. But as you might expect, demand far exceeds capacity. Also, I am not sure whether the staff at these county detox and treatment facilities would feel comfortable accepting responsibility for an addict or alcoholic who otherwise should be incarcerated.

The bottom line is this. As a community, we can continue to incarcerate substance abusers, which is expensive and does not treat the underlying addiction. Or, we can fund, build and staff treatment centers specifically designed to treat habitual substance-abusing criminals.

Treatment works. It saves money. It reduces recidivism and thus crime. It provides taxpayers a bigger bang for their buck.

We need and deserve a criminal justice system which at least emphasizes and provides treatment as much as incarceration. It’s time.

Judge Daniel Ramczyk is a judge of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court. Opinions expressed here are solely those of the judge individually and not those of the court.