Treatment, Parole Are Gaining Favor
Cash-strapped states are increasingly turning to alternative sentencing methods and to streamlined probation and parole as a way to keep low-level offenders out of prison and in their communities.
The alternative sentencing methods have been in limited use for years, often with little funding and less publicity. But recently they have gained in popularity across the country and have attracted interest from lawmakers. The measures include drug courts, which allow low-level drug offenders to avoid prison time through treatment and intense, personal, weekly intervention by a judge, and at least 500 courts for people arrested for driving while intoxicated. Drivers avoid jail by attending regular alcohol-treatment classes and by submitting to random tests.
States have also begun to shorten probation and to reduce the number of people sent to prison for technical violations, such as missing appointments. Some states are also more readily granting parole to prisoners as they become eligible, reversing a trend that kept even parole-eligible inmates locked up longer.
These trends are showing up almost everywhere as a direct response to governors and state legislatures looking with alarm at prison costs eating up increasing shares of their budgets. According to Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project for the Pew Center on the States, more than half the states and the District are trying to reduce the growth in their prison populations through alternative sentencing and through new probation and parole procedures.
In many courtrooms, judges see the same defendants so often they're practically on a first-name basis. Whether the charges are breaking and entering, driving under the influence, neglecting a child, or some other offense, the underlying cause is often the same: alcohol or drug abuse.
SAMHSA's Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT) is helping to stop these revolving doors. Since the late 1990s, CSAT has provided funding to support treatment drug courts—often referred to simply as drug courts—that offer offenders access to alcohol or substance abuse treatment instead of incarceration. Today, CSAT's criminal and juvenile justice portfolio funds 62 drug courts, helping adult offenders, juvenile offenders, and parents at risk of losing custody of their children break the cycle of substance abuse, crime, and prison time.