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Editorial - Cutting prison costs

February 09, 1998

This past Sunday, former Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. wrote a Washington Post op-ed, in which he said a three-year study of the U.S. prison system had convinced him that too many of the inmates were not criminals, but addicts of one sort or another.

Treating them for their addiction, Califano said, would be a whole lot cheaper than locking them up for years at a time. Apparently, West Virginia officials are intrigued enough by the idea, already in use in Maryland, to give it a limited trial. That's an appropriate way to test a program that will draw automatic opposition from the lock'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key crowd.

What that group forgets - probably because politicians who promise to "get tough on crime" don't remind them - is that it now costs more than $20,000 a year to keep a person behind bars. If the public can be protected and addicts treated at a lower cost, a new approach may be worth a look.

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The Maryland program West Virginia is examining is called Right Turn, and is run privately under a 10-year state contract which began in 1994 with 100 slots for drinking drivers. It has since been expanded to serve drug offenders as well. Those accepted must pay for their own treatment, and officials say they have a repeat-offense rate of 4 percent, as opposed to 30 percent for those sentenced to jail or prisons.

In West Virginia, the program is beginning with a state-run center near the Mt. Olive correctional facility. During the day, inmates go to work-release jobs in Beckley, Charleston and Huntington. At night they participate in one-on-one counseling and group programs. Participants undergo regular urine and breath tests, and officials say that so far, no one has flunked, apparently because they fear being sent back to Mt. Olive.

The payoff for taxpayers? This and other similar programs introduced by new Corrections Commissioner Bill Davis have opened up 200 beds in state prisons. Gradually expanding this program, with careful screening of inmates admitted, might yield savings all over the state.

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