Alternatives Programs for Drug Users Will Save Nation Money in Long Run

Article excerpt

Here in Florida, straight from the pits of the penitentiaries, comes a reminder of the downside of policies that make people, rather than problems, disappear.

Since 1995, the number of inmates with AIDS have increased by 13 percent. But more epidemic than the disease is the expense of treatment. Since 1995, that cost has nearly tripled.

This has happened because these days, treatment is an AIDS drug cocktail that costs about $9,600 a year. Not exactly the price of a Shirley Temple or a Tom Collins. Federal law, as well as basic tenants of humanity and civility, require these prisoners be treated.

Commonsense also compels it. All it takes is one blood-rending bite, or one deftly lobbed phlegm globule from an infected inmate to take out a guard. Or a nurse. Or any of the people being paid to keep them away from the rest of us.

Either way, the money must be spent. No way around it.

Too bad it's such a waste.

I'm not saying it's a waste to buy sick inmates some extra time. The offender may live long enough to suffer the same pain they wreaked on their victims. My hope, however, would be that they might live long enough to see why and how their life went awry, and how they might make good with the time they have left. I'm with Anne Frank on this one. I still believe that part of the steps toward eliminating society's ills must start with the belief that people are good at heart, and that they can change.

Where the waste comes from, for me, is the fact that such an expense could be minimized through more aggressive commitments to stop AIDS from spreading via drug abuse. The expense could also be minimized through alternatives to prison for people who committed crimes because they didn't have access to the rehabilitation they needed to help cure their addiction.

Gene Morris, a corrections department spokesman, had no breakdowns on how much of the AIDS epidemic in prison stems from unprotected sex, (incidentally, condoms aren't provided in prison) or from drug abuse. Many times, it's both.

But he did offer this scenario: More than 66,000 men and women are incarcerated in this state. For every 100,000 citizens, 440 people are incarcerated. A decade ago, that number was 301. …