Groups push state to spend on treatment, not incarceration

Published On: Nov 28 2012 05:39:36 PM CST   Updated On: Nov 28 2012 06:16:19 PM CST
LA CROSSE, Wis. -

Right now there are about 22,000 adults behind bars in Wisconsin.

That's about 5,000 inmates above capacity.

But two groups say the state can cut down on the bloated prison and jail populations by making an investment in prevention.

One is WISDOM, a Wisconsin network of 145 religious congregations that work on issues of social justice. They teamed up with Human Impact Partners, a non-profit organization that researches how public policy affects public well-being.

They're recommending the state spend nearly $100 million to treat offenders' addictions and mental health issues, instead of just locking them up.

Mario Street remembers sleeping in the streets, strung out on drugs. He was arrested more than 70 times and spent years of his life behind bars.

"It didn't do anything. What it did was it sat me down to sit around a bunch of people that were thinking the same way I was thinking, and I was learning from them how to do it 'better' when I got out,” said Street.

It's a cycle he said was finally broken with Drug Court and Justice Sanctions, which counsels offenders and administers drug tests.

"They pretty much pushed me to find a new way of life, pushed me to find that new circle of people to be around or go back to jail," said Street.

Now, as the owner of I.M.P.A.C.T. Recordz, he's pushing dreams instead of drugs.

The research by WISDOM and Human Impact Partners claims that if Wisconsin spent $95 million a year on treatment programs and other supportive services, the state could decrease prison admissions by 40 percent, decrease jail admissions by 10 percent and prevent 1,100 crimes over five years.

Jane Klekamp is the manager of La Crosse County Chemical Health and Justice Sanctions, which sees about 550 people a month, but gets zero funding from the state.

She said the program is anything but a get-out-of-jail-free card.

"There are some people who would say that being on Justice Sanctions is actually more difficult in some ways because they have to provide for themselves, they have to do a lot of drug and alcohol testing,” said Klekamp. “If we want people to be productive in the community, we have to have them practice skills in the community."

It’s a community Street said he didn't know he could fully be a part of until Justice Sanctions showed him how.

"The crime, the drugs and all that -- I didn't realize that that community was only this big inside of a huge community. I didn't see that. And a lot of people don't see that," said Street.

The $95 million figure WISDOM and Human Impact Partners are suggesting might sound like a lot, but the groups argue it will actually save money in the long run. They say it's four times more expensive to put someone behind bars for a year than to put them through one of those alternative treatment programs.

As many as 70 percent of Wisconsin inmates have a substance abuse addiction.