TOPICS > Politics

Substance Abuse in Prisons

January 8, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now to today’s report stating drug and alcohol abuse are involved in the incarceration of 80 percent of the people now in American prisons. Joseph Califano is chairman and president of Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction & Substance Abuse which issued the report. He’s joined tonight by Congressman Bill McCollum, Republican of Florida, chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime.

Mr. Califano, how strong are these connections between the 80 percent of the prisoners and drug and alcohol abuse?

JOSEPH CALIFANO, National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse: Well, they’re very strong. We have 1.7 million people in prison in this country; 1.4 million are there either because they violated drug and alcohol laws, because they were high at the time that they committed their crime, were on alcohol or drugs, because they stole money to buy drugs, or because they have a history of alcohol and drug abuse. So really we have prisons that are wall-to-wall with individuals with drug and alcohol problems.

JIM LEHRER: And is it–is your report and your study, has it concluded that those people wouldn’t be in prison if they had not been alcohol and drug abusers?

JOSEPH CALIFANO: Two–of the 1.4 million 200,000 are drug dealers who do not use drugs. The other 1.2 million are people hundreds of thousands of whom would not be in prison if they did not use drugs and alcohol. And when we release them from prison without treating them, what we’re really doing is visiting on society alcoholics and drug addicts who will commit crimes, who are visiting criminals on society. And when we release drug addicts without treating them, we’re releasing from prison individuals who are supporting drug dealers and the drug market.

JIM LEHRER: All right. I want to get to that part of it in a moment, but I want to first go back to–I want to go to Congressman McCollum. Do you dispute the basic finding, the 80 percent finding?

REP. BILL McCOLLUM, (R) Florida: Well, first of all, I want to say that I have a great deal of respect for Joseph Califano. He has had a tremendous record and does right now on trying to fight the war on drugs and do it the right way. And I think this report–in general, what I know about it–is an excellent report. But I would say that there are some questionable facets to it. For example, the report, itself, says that the 80 percent figure is based upon the implication of drug involvement by a great many of these people. And it defines what implication to drugs means. And part of that definition includes those who have had regular use, which are further defined as little as one dose or one use of marijuana a week for a month.

Now, I don’t doubt that most of the people who are in jail say–and prisons around this country have some connection with the drug problem, and they should be treated, and they need to be treated. In fact, in the federal system the good news is that by the end of this fiscal year, by the 1st of October this year we’re in right now every single eligible prisoner in the federal prison system will be in a drug treatment program. That’s the good news. And the states now are not necessarily in that state of affairs. And the bad news also is that even in the federal system the effectiveness, the success rate of these treatment programs is only about 10 percent, better than the private side, but not nearly as good as it should be.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Califano, what did your study find about the treatment and the effectiveness of treatment in federal, state, and also compared to private?

JOSEPH CALIFANO: Let me–also, I’d like to clarify just one thing for Rep. McCollum, who is also a great battler in this important war for our country. Regular drug use is defined as it’s traditionally defined, which is the use of drugs twice a week at a minimum for a period of at least a month. Of the roughly several hundred thousand regular drug users that are in prison most of them were regular drug users in the month prior to their arrest, and most of them were tested positive for drugs. And the drugs they tested positive for were by and large heroin and cocaine and not marijuana. Secondly, alcohol is the drug most connected with violent crime, which the report indicates. On your question with respect to treatment, basically the federal budget in fiscal 1997, .9 of 1 percent of the prison budget, $25 million, was spent for treatment. That is going up as Congressman McCollum knows. With respect to the states, basically the need for treatment has gone up. And, remember, of the 1.7 million prisoners 1.6 million are in state prisoners. The federal part of this problem is the tail of the dog. And as the need for treatment has gone up roughly eight hundred and fifty, eight hundred and sixty thousand people who need treatment, those who are getting treatment has gone down. Less than 150,000 got treatment. And what is called treatment in prison, in state prisons, is often woefully inadequate. It’s a little education; it’s a little of this. The kind of treatment we think is needed is an intensive residential treatment for most of these people, along with job training and literacy training, whatever they need to get them up to a high school equivalency.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman, do you agree with that, that treatment in prison of these billions of prisoners could do tremendous things?

REP. BILL McCOLLUM: I think that it would, now not alone, but it is very important that it happen. And it’s not happening well today. As I said earlier, I think the figure I used is correct, that only about a 10 percent success rate exists in any of these treatment programs, that being higher again out in the civil world, where drug treatment programs don’t have prisoners incarcerated. So I agree with that part of the report. I also think it’s important, though, to know that as we go through this process, the violent criminal is being incarcerated for longer and longer periods of time for justification and good reason, and that, in fact, the person who’s there and being treated, the treatment alone is not the sole answer. In other words, we need to have a combination of photos.

We need, as Mr. Califano said, to be sure we have prison industry programs at work, job training programs at work; when the prisoners go out, they are followed, which they’re not today–in most of our prison systems when they’re released to the degree necessary. There’s a lot to this. And right now one of the more remarkable things is that we have seen the crime rate, the violent crime rate, coming down I think in large measure because we have extended the length of stay in prisons for many people who are involved in these violent crimes and serious drug trafficking offenses by the truth and sentencing laws that most–more than 50 percent of the states now have passed and the federal government has–it says you have to serve at least 85 percent of your sentences to stop the revolving door that was in presence in this country for so long in the prison system.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman–

JOSEPH CALIFANO: We have slowed the revolving door. We haven’t stopped it. I think it is important to note that, on average, people get out of prison in one and a half to four years; that even with the sentences that Congressman McCollum is talking about people for crimes like aggravated assault are getting out on an average in three years, so that if we want to continue to use crime in this country, we’ve got to make sure that when these people are released, we have given them the treatment and training they need to become taxpaying, law abiding citizens, and that we’re not simply releasing more criminals on society because they are getting out.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman McCollum, what about Mr. Califano’s earlier point that, that it’s–that the violent crime is being committed more by alcohol abusers than drug abusers–does that jibe with your subcommittee’s finding as well?

REP. BILL McCOLLUM: Well, I haven’t studied his report and I’m looking forward to be able to see it in detail, but what we see out there is that drugs and alcohol are definitely involved, but I’m not ready to say that our studies have shown up to this point the connection that he’s saying his report does show. What I do–

JOSEPH CALIFANO: Our analysis is to–our analysis, and we will–the report, I think, is in your office.

REP. BILL McCOLLUM: We’re looking forward to reading it in detail. JOSEPH CALIFANO: And we want to work with you on it. 21 percent of the individuals in state prison who are incarcerated for violent crime were high on alcohol only at the time of their crime. 3 percent were high on crack cocaine only and 1 percent on heroin only. In the jails it’s about 26 percent in comparable lower percentages.

REP. BILL McCOLLUM: I also want to say, if I could, Mr. Califano, that I don’t disagree with your numbers with respect to the amount of people getting out earlier than they really should be. But the reality is that we need to get the other half of the states to go to this 85 percent sentencing rule to get truth in sentencing throughout the nation. And that would make a huge difference in this, but it does require, in addition to that, everything you’ve said about the need to come forward with better drug treatment programs, more drug treatment programs in the states, as well as the prison training, and the opportunity to get jobs when they get out.

JIM LEHRER: What about his point also, Congressman, that–and the report’s point–that if these folks are not treated, they go to prison only, even if they stay for many years, they come back out still addicted to either alcohol or drugs, and just become–become repeat customers, or out on the streets?

REP. BILL McCOLLUM: I think that’s absolutely correct, but I think that there’s something that’s not in this report that needs to be said too because the report didn’t try to cover this apparently. And that is that in those few states where we really have good prison industry systems and they’re not as complete anyway as we’d like, the recidivism rate where those states exist with these programs is very low, compared to where they don’t. And we need very, very much to have prison industries reviewed. I think that is equally important to the drug treatment issue as is the question of how we deal with drug treatment in those who are addicted, or those who are alcoholics.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Califano, you’ve issued your report–250 pages. How long did your folks work on this, three years?

JOSEPH CALIFANO: It took three years to do this.

JIM LEHRER: Three years. Okay. Now, what happens? What happens now?

JOSEPH CALIFANO: I think now what happens, fortunately, a couple of good things happen. One, I’d like to say treatment and training in prison is a tremendously sound investment for taxpayers. We estimate that if we treated all of those 1.2 million prisoners, it would cost about $7.8 billion, about $6500 each. And the return on that investment in the first year would be more than $8 billion, and we’d have tremendous returns thereafter. What happens now, one, I think largely because of our report, the drug czar announced today that he’s going to call a conference in March of experts in the treatment and training area. And Mr. McConnell is exactly right. Training and work is very important to go along with this. And that will lead to a conference in October or November with several hundred people from all the states in this country.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

JOSEPH CALIFANO: We need a revolution in the way we think about people in prison, and we need, as I said in the report, a second front in the war on crime.



JIM LEHRER: We have to leave it there. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.