City Council member Nick Licata explains why Seattle doesn’t need to build a new jail. Of all the places where we could be saving money right now, this is one of the most obvious. A Citizen’s Initiative has already been launched to find alternatives to building a new jail.
Back in January, Real Change hosted an event to air opposition to the plan. The video below contains some very insightful comments from Seattle middle school teacher Jesse Hagopian about how much we value prisons vs. schools:
The issue of our ever-expanding prison population is finally coming to the fore, thanks to courageous politicians like Jim Webb, who recognize that it’s nothing short of a tragic failure that America has the world’s largest prison population by far. The fact that even here in “progressive” King County we’re looking at fixing a potential shortage of jail beds by trying to spend money on a new jail – rather than re-evaluating why we’re trying to arrest so many people for minor non-violent offenses in the first place – gives us a good idea of how entrenched in our political system this failure has become.
One primary impetus for this failure has been the increased tendency to treat people with mental health and substance abuse problems as criminals who need to be sent to jail. During the 1980s, we began to believe that spending money to treat those people wasn’t a smart way to spend taxpayer dollars. This past week, another hole was blown right through that bit of conventional wisdom. From Blake Fleetwood in the Huffington Post:
The two year study results are in. “Bunks for Drunks” saves tax dollars.
Providing housing for chronic alcoholics, who are still drinking, can save taxpayers more than $40,000 annually, per alcoholic, according to the study released yesterday in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
Of course, at the time the project was launched, conservatives criticized the plan:
“It’s a living monument to a failed social policy” said John Carlson, a conservative local talk show host. It’s “aiding and abetting someone’s self-destruction.”
As we now know, the policy did no such thing:
The researchers found the average cost of alcohol-related services — hospital emergency care, the nonprofit “sobering center” (where police bring alcoholics to dry out), and the King County jail was $57,984 per person, per year while the 95 were living on the streets.
The savings and results were nothing but dramatic. Twelve months after moving into the apartment building, the average cost for these services for the same population dropped to $11,496 per person per year — an annual savings of $46,488.
The study also found that daily drinking fell by roughly 2% per month while subjects were in the program, which offered the alcoholics permanent homes with some supportive services.
So not only did this program save taxpayers money, it helped reduce problematic drinking as well. This seemingly counter-intuitive result is similar to the results found when safe sites have been set up for other addictive drugs. Despite what many non-libertarian conservatives (and even some clueless libertarian ones too) have been telling us for years, it’s simply not true that when government allows a behavior it’s inherently encouraging or rewarding it. The idea that government can be a moral nanny is a fallacy, and there’s no greater proof of that than America having both the highest prison population and the highest rates of illegal drug use in the world.
Washington is facing a very serious budget crisis, and it’s critical for us to base our decisions on the best empirical evidence for what works and what doesn’t – especially when it comes to dealing with the nexus between public health and criminal justice. The fact that the legislature is slicing $1.5 billion in health and human services, but couldn’t even muster up the courage to decriminalize pot should give you a pretty good indication of how fucked we are on this front.