Louder than words

George W. Bush, who refuses to answer questions about his own drug use, slashed drug rehabilitation programs for inmates while ushering in tougher sentencing laws.

Published August 24, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Once upon a time -- seven, 15 or 25 years ago -- Texas Gov. George W. Bush was "young and irresponsible." But as governor, Bush has had little sympathy for Texans who commit youthful indiscretions. He has tightened the state's drug-sentencing laws, OK'd the housing of 16-year-olds in adult correctional facilities and slashed funding for inmate substance-abuse programs.

Texas currently spends over $1.45 million per day keeping adult drug offenders behind bars. It spends another $28,000 a day incarcerating youths on drug offenses.

During her tenure as governor, Bush's predecessor Ann Richards, a recovering alcoholic, pushed for more substance-abuse treatment programs for inmates. She outlined a program with 14,000 treatment beds at a cost of about $160 million per year. She cited a 1988 state-funded study that said almost 80 percent of Texas inmates had some form of drug abuse, and 54 percent needed treatment for severe addictions.

"You've got to do something about that problem," Richards said during her 1994 race with Bush, "or you're going to be spinning your wheels just putting them in and taking them out."

Bush attacked Richards' idea, saying that the treatment programs are unproven. "Incarceration is rehabilitation," Bush insisted. He said that instead of spending money on treatment, the state should spend the money on building jails for juveniles. Bush prevailed at the ballot box and in 1995 the Legislature, with Bush's prompting, cut Richards' program from 14,000 beds to 5,300.

Not only has Bush cut drug treatment programs, he has also signed into law measures that put more drug offenders behind bars for longer periods of time. In 1997, he signed a bill toughening penalties for people convicted of selling or possessing less than a gram of cocaine. Before he signed the measure, state law required judges to give mandatory probation for those offenses. Two years earlier, Bush signed another measure to increase penalties for anyone caught selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or school bus.

In truth, Bush had little choice but to sign the bills. The measures had already passed both houses of the Legislature and he would have had a difficult time explaining to Texans why he vetoed measures that toughened the state's drug laws.

But Bush will have a harder time explaining why he cut a program that reduces the number of inmates who return to prison. Statistics released in January by the Criminal Justice Policy Council, a state agency that advises the Legislature and the governor on criminal justice issues, show that in the first year after inmates complete one of the state's drug treatment programs, recidivism drops by 63 percent. After three years, the decrease is still significant: The recidivism rate for inmates who complete the treatment course is 20 percent less that for inmates who do not.

Last year, a study done for the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services found that 19 percent of the inmates who received substance-abuse treatment were rearrested in the year after going through the program, compared to a 60-percent arrest rate in the year before going through treatment.

Robb Southerland, the CEO and founder of the Crime Prevention Institute, an Austin-based nonprofit group that promotes drug treatment in prison and the workplace, argues that the reduction in recidivism obtained by the programs deserves more attention -- and more funding. Southerland, himself a recovering substance abuser, says most inmates will eventually be released from prison.

"Isn't the community better off having somebody who is recovering from their addiction than having someone who's still addicted and still committing crimes to support their addiction?" asks Southerland. "There's no question we should have as many treatment beds as possible so we can get as many people as possible into recovery before they are released. Five thousand beds is a good start but we need more," he said.

Bush cannot be blamed for all of Texas' drug laws and prison woes. But his home state holds a number of dubious distinctions when it comes to drug offenders and prison issues. Of the 1.17 million inmates now held in state jails and prisons across the United States, close to 13 percent (about 144,000) are locked up in Texas, even though the state is home to roughly 7 percent of the country's population. Texas has the second-highest per capita incarceration rate of any state, with 724 of every 100,000 residents in prison, a rate surpassed only by Louisiana.

Since 1990, the number of inmates in Texas prisons has increased by 154 percent, the biggest increase of any state. Today, Texas has more people on parole and probation than any other state. It also has the highest percentage of adults under community supervision.

Some government officials say the policies endorsed by Gov. Bush are contributing to Texas' booming prison population.

"It's the war on drugs," says Tony Fabelo, the executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Council. "We had the crack epidemic and more funding by the federal government, so we had an increase in the convictions [sent] to prisons."

According to Fabelo, 21 percent of Texas' 144,000 inmates are in for drug offenses. Of those 27,000, almost half are doing time for cocaine-related offenses. Marijuana offenses account for 6.5 percent. Heroin, amphetamines and other drugs account for the rest of the drug-related convictions.

The demand for treatment exceeds the supply. Last year, nearly 1,000 people on probation were on a waiting list to get treatment. But under Bush's brand of "compassionate conservatism" where incarceration equals rehabilitation, providing treatment to Texans who have exhibited irresponsible behavior is not a priority.

By Robert Bryce

Robert Bryce is the managing editor of Energy Tribune. His latest book is Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of "Energy Independence."

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Crime Drugs George W. Bush Republican Party Texas