Oregon could save substantial money if it treated high-risk criminal offenders for substance abuse, but instead cash-strapped counties allow roughly half of those offenders to go untreated, according to an audit released Tuesday.
Secretary of State auditors estimate if all high-risk offenders in Oregon received drug treatment, state programs and crime victims would have saved $21.6 million between 2008 and 2011.
The audit found help for county budgets, too, suggesting that under the Affordable Care Act Medicaid could cover the cost of drug treatment.
The report’s release comes as a national wave of efforts by groups on the left and right aim to reduce the cost of the United States prison system by preventing prisoners from re-offending once they’re released.
On Monday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced changes to federal sentencing guidelines aimed at reducing prison populations. And earlier this year, Oregon lawmakers passed a package of public safety reforms that will flat-line state prison growth for five years.
“If you want to really control prison costs, you have to go after the causes that put people in prison in the first place,” said Dwight Holton, former U.S. attorney for Oregon.
The audit is more evidence that lawmakers were on the right track in crafting House Bill 3194, said Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany, which allocated $17 million in savings from reducing the state prison growth to a fund that counties can tap for community corrections programs.
“It really supports a lot of what we’ve thought for a number of years,” said Olson, a chief sponsor of the public safety package.
County corrections budgets have been squeezed for years by property tax limitations and dwindling state contributions. Auditors were the first to discover that drug treatment could be covered under an expansion of Medicaid in 2014.
“Corrections is quite eager to work with the department of human services and the counties to enroll these offenders before they’re released,” said Gary Blackmer, director of the secretary of state’s audits division, “and line them up for treatment.”
The audit tracked 4,525 offenders who were the most likely to re-offend and had a serious drug problem between 2008 and 2011 and found only half received treatment after they left prison. According to the audit, 70 percent of inmates in 2012 had a substance abuse problem.
By leveraging federal funding for drug treatment, the state could save on the $16 daily cost of treating ex-offenders once they’ve entered the community, Blackmer said. Auditors didn’t have a model for quantifying those savings, he said, but presumably they could be invested in treating more ex-offenders.
“They could actually expand the population beyond the highest risk,” Blackmer said.