howardnlby Howard Stephenson

The recently concluded Utah Legislature was hugely successful for taxpayers and political conservatives.  However, there were a few important measures which did not pass because of infighting between the House and Senate or because legislators weren’t willing to spend pennies to save dollars.

These worthy proposals include tuition tax credits and HB 18 (Lockhart) with its approach to placing increased general fund revenue into road projects so it can’t be used to grow government and a new approach to prioritizing highway projects based on need instead of politics. Another failed measure was the Drug Offender Reform Act (DORA) which proposed to spend $16.6 million to prevent spending $60 million.

DORA would provide substance abuse screening for all felony offenders in Utah including prison inmates and those on probation or parole. Then, based on the results of the screening, DORA would provide treatment for those identified in need. In conjunction with a clinical review, assessments would be used to determine the level of treatment required.

DORA would be phased-in over three years with a first year appropriation of $6 million. This would provide substance abuse assessments for 5,088 probationers, 3,456 inmates in Utah’s prison system, and 1,379 parolees. Based on these assessments those who are in need of substance abuse treatment and willing to receive treatment would be offered treatment. By the third year 2,131 probationers would be receiving treatment, 2,069 inmates would be receiving treatment, and 549 parolees would be receiving treatment – for a total of 4,749 additional substance abuse treatment slots due to DORA.

Addressing the Problem at its Roots

It is estimated that 80% of Utah’s inmate, probation and parole population has a drug or alcohol problem which constitutes a foundation for their criminal activity. Additionally, 916 inmates or 15 % of Utah prison population are there solely for possession of drugs.  The goal of DORA is to close the treatment gap so that all inmates who need drug or alcohol treatment are able to get it.  Research indicates that if this problem is solved, the chance of their returning to prison is significantly reduced, which in turn reduces the prison population.

I question the wisdom of locking up 916 inmates solely for possession of drugs. Drug addiction is a clinical health problem which has been criminalized. If society locks up individuals who have an addictive health problem who have not been convicted of any other crime, wouldn’t it be smart to treat the addiction?

Cost Savings

The Utah Department of Corrections has estimated that after DORA is fully implemented, Utah will see a diversion of approximately 203 offenders away from prison. The cost savings associated with that diversion would be approximately $4.6 million annually to the state budget alone.

The Department claims that additional cost savings would be made at other levels of government and society in general. They cite an Oregon study which shows that for every dollar spent on drug treatment, $5.60 in costs are avoided. Approximately 42% of the savings would accrue in avoided theft losses, 28% in avoided victim losses, 26% in avoided criminal justice costs including police, court, prosecution and prison costs, and 4% in avoided public assistance costs such as foster care and food stamps. In addition, offenders who do not re-offend become taxpayers rather than tax-users, thus positively impacting the state and local tax base. According to this estimate, DORA could realize approximately $75 million in avoided costs annually.

Unfortunately, legislative fiscal analysts have not counted any of the cost avoidance estimates in their fiscal note on the DORA legislation. They have included only the costs of the screening and treatment, but not any of the savings. This is typical for the Fiscal Analyst to perform a “static” instead of “dynamic” fiscal analysis. Consequently, because of legislative rules which require that fiscal notes must be funded if legislation is passed, many cost-saving proposals fail to become law.

Additionally, SB 22, the DORA legislation, ran into trouble when its sponsor Senator Chris Buttars and members of the House Republican leadership team didn’t see eye to eye. Hopefully they’ll resolve their differences and not delay this important legislation any further. Although the general session has ended, this bill should be considered in the April special session of the Utah Legislature.

It’s become increasingly popular in the legislative process for advocates to claim a spending program will “pay for itself.” In most cases their claims are a real stretch. However, in the case of DORA, experience from other states has shown the drug treatment program really does save government and society a lot of money over the long haul.

Contact your legislators and the governor and tell them to pass DORA.