No Texan should be fooled into thinking that we need more prisons to keep up with population growth or lock up sex offenders. The real question is whether we need more prisons to lock up more nonviolent drug offenders.

Texas incarcerates 20,000 people convicted of possessing illegal drugs, not dealing them. While our state’s population grew 35 percent between 1978 and 2004, our prison system grew 278 percent. Worse, although most Texas prisoners have a substance abuse problem, only 15 percent receive treatment. Most addicts are commingled with violent offenders, reinforcing the sense of hopelessness that initially caused them to succumb to drugs.

Texas taxpayers could be asked to spend $420 million to construct three new prisons, which would cost another $600 million to operate over 10 years.

However, California found a better way. In 2000, that state’s voters passed Proposition 36 to sentence nonviolent drug addicts to community-based treatment instead of prison. The result, according to a UCLA study, has been $1.4 billion in savings to taxpayers and 60,000 former addicts successfully completing treatment.

On April 3rd, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee heard SB 1909 by Sens. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), John Carona (R-Dallas), and Robert Deuell (R-Greenville), which would model the California approach. Complementary provisions in the appropriations bill will create thousands of new residential and outpatient community-based drug treatment slots.

Community-based treatment is less costly and more humane than prison. Outpatient drug treatment in Texas costs an average of $1,640 per episode. Even placement in a 90-day residential drug treatment program is several times cheaper than a prison sentence. SB 1909 alone would divert more than 10,000 drug possession offenders from state jails and prisons, saving more than $1 billion that it would cost to build and operate the proposed new prisons. That takes into account those offenders who do not comply with the treatment or pose a danger to public safety, who would still be sent to prison under SB 1909.

By rerouting most nonviolent minor drug offenders from state lockups to community-based treatment programs – many of which are operated by non-profit and faith-based organizations – SB 1909 will harness the innovation of the private sector, such as advances in chemical interventions and cognitive therapeutic techniques that change an offender’s outlook on life. Many community-based programs also utilize family members, churches, and employers as resources in facilitating recovery, which is not possible in prison. The legislation expressly includes faith-based drug rehabilitation programs provided that they meet the same state licensing criteria for chemical dependency counseling. In Arizona, which implemented a similar measure, the treatment program succeeded in getting 77 percent of substance abusers clean.

In addition to SB 1909, House Correction Chairman Jerry Madden’s HB 530 would create more drug courts, which allow minor drug offenders to take responsibility for their actions, using prison only as leverage to ensure compliance. A judge employs incentives and sanctions in overseeing a regimen of comprehensive treatment, drug testing, and family interaction. Texas offenders completing drug court programs have a 28.5 percent re-arrest rate compared to the norm of 58.5 percent.

There are many victims of substance abuse, but incarceration only exacts a heavier toll on the addict’s family and society. In 2002, the Texas Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse estimated that that drug abuse costs the state $9.5 billion, and it is surely more today. Some 70 percent of Texas prison inmates have children – these parents owe more than $2.5 billion in child support, which they cannot pay while in prison. The bonds between parents behind bars for drug possession and their children are frayed; after two years, Texas law terminates their parental rights altogether. The children of incarcerated nonviolent drug offenders are often bounced from one foster home to the next.

The challenge for government is to recreate the response of a tight-knit family if a loved one succumbed to substance abuse. To be sure, no government program can ever replicate the family, but few families would view prison as the best solution for their addicted loved one. We must not victimize other families, their children, and Texas taxpayers by spending billions more on building walls that only obstruct the pathways to recovery and redemption.

Marc A. Levin, Esq. is Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin.