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Alternatives to Prison Could Save State Millions

By Sheri M. Whitley and Jeannie Yip

Here’s a line item in the state budget every tax payer would love to see eliminated: New York State could save more than $130 million annually in incarceration costs and another $40 million for ancillary public services such as health care and public assistance. How? By routing most of the estimated 10,000 nonviolent, drug-involved criminals that enter the legal system each year into drug treatment in lieu of prison.

Professor Elwin Wu
Wu’s professional interests include interventions for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.
An expanding body of research indicates that for some individuals, programs that use alternatives to incarceration as rehabilitation (ATIs) are just as effective as imprisonment when examining re-incarceration and threats to public safety.

That’s small consolation to researchers and policy wonks looking for ways to reduce recidivism rates, but the real boon of ATIs is that they cost significantly less than prison. Incarceration costs roughly $30,500 per inmate per year in New York State; ATIs range from $4,300 to $7,500 per person. These programs also have an important community building component. For individuals caught up in the criminal justice system, they help ease a transition to productive roles in their communities, which are often overwhelmed by the number of individuals leaving incarceration.

“Beyond drug possession and sale crimes, drug abuse drives a good deal of crime, such as violence and prostitution, in New York,” says Elwin Wu, assistant professor at the School of Social Work. “The majority of existing research has shown that diversion programs for offenders have similar recidivism rates to incarceration. With the high costs associated with imprisonment, the good news is that ATI programs represent a cost-beneficial alternative to incarceration. The better news is that there is room to strengthen ATI programming efforts. We may eventually find out how to significantly reduce recidivism rates.”

Professor Wu recently received a $1.4 million dollar grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to fund research aimed at identifying what drives the success of ATIs in New York. The study, titled “Service Use, ATI Program Outcomes and Pro-Social Change,” is a four-year, longitudinal panel study. “Past studies with ATIs typically look at what correlates to change,” Wu adds. “This study will look at what drives change.”

Professor Elwin Wu Delivering a Presentation
Professor Wu is also co-director of the Center for Intervention and Prevention Research on HIV and Drug Abuse.
Determining which individuals are most likely to benefit from ATIs is still more art than science, but Wu and his colleagues at Social Intervention Group (SIG), a research center at Columbia’s School of Social Work, are employing techniques typically associated with the natural and statistical sciences to change that. “This study will use a rigorous scientific design and state-of-the-art data analysis methods to identify the causal mechanisms that drive the success of ATI programs and reduce the impact of barriers to success,” says Wu.

The study will focus on the impact of formal health care and psychosocial services and the factors that affect utilization of the services provided. Wu and colleagues will interview 360 men and women every three months over the course of 18 months following ATI enrollment. The data they collect should help identify factors that contribute to the efficacy of ATIs and determine which groups of people are most likely to benefit from them.

In New York City, ATIs are operated by nonprofit organizations contracted by the Office of the Mayor and the City Council to provide rehabilitative services including drug treatment, vocational training, material resources and crisis intervention. Individuals who participate in ATIs enter the programs through several avenues. Many are referred by judges and lawyers as part of a plea negotiation, deferred prosecution or placement as part of their sentence.

The programs generally require a minimum of six months participation. Nearly all are nonresidential. “This allows participants to maintain their positive roles and functions, such as care-giving and contributions to the community’s economy via employment, and minimizes the disruption caused by criminal justice involvement as they re-enter the community,” says Wu. These are key elements to maintaining or restoring the well-being of communities grappling with drug-driven crime.

One factor thought to have a negative impact on the effectiveness of ATIs is mental illness. Prospective participants with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia are ineligible to enroll in ATIs because such serious impairments make it difficult to maintain the level of engagement necessary for the program to succeed. However, how conditions such as depression, anxiety and poor impulse control affect recidivism and pro-social change among ATI participants has yet to be studied quantitatively.

Given that the criminal justice system funnels people -- including a disproportionate number of racial and ethnic minorities, who often grapple with multiple health and psychosocial needs such as HIV, hepatitis C, poverty and discrimination -- the study is also an important effort to redress health disparities and ensure that at-risk populations are not further disenfranchised. Recognizing the impact of concurrent problems and breaking that cycle of disenfranchisement is important to Wu and his SIG colleagues as a matter of social justice.

“Not only are ATIs cheaper than imprisonment,” says Wu, “they can break the cycle of poverty, drug abuse and social disenfranchisement.”

Published: July 13, 2006
Last modified: Jul 13, 2006