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Economic analysis: Spending money on drug treatment reduces crime

It's emotionally satisfying to many people to feel that their lawmakers are "tough on crime." According to the New York Times' The Upshot blog, people are willing to pay 10 times their actual losses to prevent a second burglary -- and 100 times their losses to prevent a second armed robbery.

Yet the increasingly draconian War on Drugs has focused primarily on enforcement efforts, with very mixed results, according to The Upshot blog's analysis. On the other hand, drug treatment has a markedly positive impact on crime. According to an Emory University study, increasing the treatment rate by 10 percent reduces robbery and larceny rates by around 3 percent. The effect on the rate of aggravated assault is even more marked: that 10 percent increase in drug treatment brought aggravated assault down by between 4 and 9 percent.

Comparing a variety of good studies, The Upshot found that every dollar spent on drug treatment results in three dollars' worth of crime reduction.

How might these findings impact the opioid addiction epidemic?

Some 80,000 people are in American jails and prisons right now due to opioid-related crime, and that doesn't begin to consider the many Americans living with addiction.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prescription opioid dependence, abuse and overdoses cost state and local governments about $23 billion each year, and only around a third of that can be attributed to crime. The cost to the private sector in terms of healthcare expenses and loss of productivity is an astonishing $55 billion per year.

If what we need is the most cost-effective way to manage opioid addiction, we need to increase drug treatment.

Economists from Montana State University and Texas A&M also showed that treatment is extremely cost-effective. In their analysis, they looked into the savings in terms of the cost of addiction associated with each facility. Adding a single treatment facility saved around $4.2 million annually -- four times the cost of such a facility.

"The most important reason to support treatment is to improve the well-being and social function of people with addiction disorders," said a spokesperson for the University of Chicago Crime Lab. But "the economic value of crime reduction largely or totally offsets the costs of treatment."

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