I'm sure that many Americans were shocked to read Nicholas Kristof's dead-on New York Times piece, "Inside a Mental Hospital called Jail," that captured the bass-ackwards math of what a Cook County, Ill. sheriff calls "the stupidest thing that I've ever seen government do."
In the name of law enforcement, most US counties continue to arrest tens of thousands of 'criminals' for non-violent drug offenses or petty crimes, pay a fortune in local taxpayer dollars to incarcerate them (and in some cases, even treat and stabilize them), and then release them with near-certain knowledge that the arrest-incarceration cycle will happen again.
In Cook County, Kristof reports that taxpayers spend as much as $300 or $400 a day supporting patients with psychiatric disorders while they are in jail, partly because the mentally ill require medication and extra supervision and care. Sheriff Thomas Dart says that it would be far cheaper to manage the mentally ill with a case worker on the outside than to spend such sums incarcerating them.
Another example, easily found in today's headlines: The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that the top 100 property crime and drug offenders in Santa Fe accounted for 590 arrests, 5,000 police hours, 15,000 prosecutor/public defender hours, and 11,500 days in jail for a cost (conservatively estimated) of some $4.1 million since 2010. If these individuals are anything like their counterparts in Chicagoland, half are mentally ill and an even larger percentage have some sort of addiction or substance-use problem.
Although any kid could do the math that proves treatment is far less expensive than incarceration for non-violent offenders, putting systems in place to support the diversion of offenders from criminal to drug or mental-health courts continues to move at a glacially slow pace. It's as though every county, every community, every police chief, sheriff or elected official has to learn and convince others of the same thing, over an dover again.
If we as a society want non-violent drug and property offenders to "pay their debt to society," the best way to do that isn't to put them into a local jail. It's to put as many of them as possible onto the path of getting community-based treatment, a decent place to live, and some ongoing training aimed at getting and keeping a job. Most of these individuals want nothing more than to be citizens and taxpayers like the rest of us. And it pays us and our society to give them the chance to do just that.