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Treatment and Education Less Costly than Prisons, Health Experts Say

The first comprehensive report examining the link between the incarceration of African American men and substance abuse recommends policy reforms.

--by Suzanne Boothby

The Gist

Crime rates have dropped significantly across the country in the past 20 years, but an unprecedented rate of incarceration among African Americans has continued, along with more substance abuse and other health issues.

A new report from mental health experts examines the moral and economic costs of current racial disparities in the judicial system, and concludes that the problems are avoidable, especially if more resources are put into education and treatment.

"Instead of getting health care and education from civil society, African American males are being funneled into the prison system,” said Dr. William D. Richie, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Meharry Medical College and lead author of the study. “Much of this costly practice could be avoided in the long term by transferring funds away from prisons and into education."

Almost 40 percent of all U.S. inmates are black, and incarceration rates for this group jumped 500 percent from 1986 to 2004, according to Ritchie's research. Substance abuse increases an individual’s risk of serving time, but men without a previous history of substance abuse also have a higher risk once they leave the prison system, and may end up back in jail rather than getting a job or more education.

The cost of incarcerating people involved in substance-related crimes has also increased, and the report estimates that a reduction in non-violent offenses would save about $17 billion per year. Substance abuse in African American men also leads to higher mortality rates and higher rates of alcohol-related problems, and makes them more likely to be the victims of crimes.

The Expert Take

The message of the study’s authors is clear: spend money on prevention rather than prison.

“Spending money on prevention and intervention of substance abuse treatment programs will yield better results than spending on correctional facilities,” the study authors wrote.

States are spending more on prison for non-violent offenders than they are on education, with 60 percent of incarcerations due to non-violent, illicit drug-related crimes, according to the report.

The authors also point to previous studies showing that the total cost of substance abuse—through incarceration, crime, and treatment—is more than $500 billion per year.

Source and Method

The research published in Frontiers in Psychology this month examines decades of data concerning rates of incarceration and subsequent health issues in the African American population.

The Takeaway

The researchers recommend implementing more mental health care and addiction treatment programs, both during and after incarceration, to help decrease the chances that inmates will re-offend.

They also suggest more public awareness of substance abuse by health care professionals, along with more early interventions in schools, including hiring more African American teachers.

“One step in the right direction would be to have more black teachers during the early stages of development," Richie said. "From a behavioral scientific perspective, having teachers that look like the students and the parents of students from an early age could go a long way in changing perceptions of authority for black youth."

Other Research

A December 2007 study by the American Civil Liberties Union first reported the 500 percent increase in Americans behind bars, with a disproportionate number being black and Hispanic.

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Tags: Awareness , Drugs , Public Health & Policy , Latest Studies & Research

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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.