Odyssey House
Inmates participating in an intensive drug treatment program while incarcerated at the Salt Lake County Metro Jail performed a holiday play Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, as part of the program's annual efforts to bring holiday cheer to the jail while inmates work to overcome drug addiction.

Somewhere in our state right now, an inmate is struggling with the slavery of substance abuse. He has fallen into a downward spiral of addiction and criminality, and has landed behind bars.

Drug use and crime are often entangled. Some offenders with substance-use disorders are arrested on drug possession charges; others may be arrested for crimes committed to fund an addiction. In short, many criminal offenders are people caught in the downward spiral of addiction and criminality.

For that reason, one of the keys to reducing criminal recidivism is drug rehabilitation. As discussed in the Utah Foundation’s new report, Rethinking Rehabilitation, investing in rehabilitation for offenders can yield significant savings to taxpayers in the long run. A recent report by the federal Council of Economic Advisers estimated that programs that address prisoners’ substance-abuse problems can save taxpayers up to $5.27 for every $1 spent. This suggests that rehabilitation isn’t just a public health concern or a public safety matter, but also a fiscal issue.

From 2014 (the year before Utah’s criminal justice reform) to 2016 (most recent year available), Utah’s prison population decreased by 12 percent. Many applaud this change as the good fruit of the state’s 2015 criminal justice reforms, which were part of broader efforts to decrease incarceration rates. More good fruit: The implementation of the 2015 reforms increased state support for substance-abuse treatment centers across Utah. As a result, between 2016 to 2017 alone, there was a 21 percent increase in admissions to substance-abuse treatment for criminal offenders.

However, the Utah Foundation found that even as the prison population decreased, the total population of local jails across the state increased by 6 percent. The shift from state prisons to local jails appears to be due at least in part to efforts to downgrade drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. The increasing ratio of jail inmates to state prison inmates raises concerns about reduced opportunities for drug rehabilitation.

When offenders are behind bars, they become a captive audience for drug rehabilitation programs. But there is significant unevenness among the programs on offer, and this could become a growing challenge. Within state prisons, there are two substance-abuse treatment programs for men and one for women, all of which use therapeutic communities — an approach shown to reduce recidivism and drug relapse.

But among the 26 county jails in Utah, only 14 have substance-abuse programs, and those vary in content and structure.

To be sure, the need is significant. From 2015 to 2017, a statewide recidivism risk and mental health needs screening process implemented in county jails showed that half of inmates required further assessment for a substance-use disorder. (As of 2018, however, only two counties have continued to use the screening process due to a lack of funding.)

Comment on this story

Given the potential return on investment from high-quality programs for drug offenders, Utah Foundation suggests that state and local governments continue to work to leverage robust and effective rehabilitation programs. In that context, the increasing ratio of local jail inmates to state prison inmates deserves close examination to ensure that the shift does not diminish the prospects for drug rehabilitation among offenders. Addressing the matter will require officials to work toward a continuum of rehabilitation services across the criminal justice system at both the state and local levels.

Getting rehabilitation right will mean more offenders will find a way to climb out of the downward spiral of addiction and poverty. That’s a good thing for society, for public safety, for public health — and for state and local coffers.