Poverty, Addiction, and a New Way Forward

by Senator Rob Portman
Applying the principles of constructive conservatism where the war on drugs has failed.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from a speech on poverty Senator Rob Portman (R., Ohio) gave at the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday, May 13. Full remarks as prepared for delivery can be found here.

Poverty and drug abuse are topics we often talk about separately to different groups with different priorities. And yet, they are intimately tied together.

We know, of course, that drug abuse and drug addiction bedevil communities rich and poor, and a big house and a nice car does not make one immune to drug abuse.

But I can tell you that drug abuse is particularly devastating to communities that are already vulnerable, where unemployment rates are high, where people don’t have the skills or the training they need to get a good job, whether it’s the poor Appalachian counties in southern Ohio that have been devastated by the prescription-drug epidemic, or the poor neighborhoods in our inner cities that are now reeling from the surge in heroin, in overdoses, and in violence – the gangs and the crime that build up around the drug trade.

You cannot talk about poverty without talking about addiction, and addiction is something that a war on drugs is never going to solve.

Michael McGrath, Cleveland’s chief of police, recently came to a roundtable discussion I organized in his inner city. Chief McGrath was a young officer when cocaine hit the streets in the ’80s.

So 30 years later, Chief McGrath is returning to the same homes to arrest those same convicts’ children for the same crimes. And now their kids are being left without fathers, the odds against them from the beginning, the cycle of poverty starting all over again.

Fortunately, after more than a trillion dollars spent in the war on drugs and thousands of lives lost, we are starting to understand that arrest, prosecution, and incarceration are not enough.

Instead, we have to start where addiction starts and end where addiction ends.

It starts in our communities.

In 1996, when I was just starting out in Congress, one of my constituents came to see me. She told me a story about her son, Jeff Gardner. Jeff had died of a drug overdose when he was only 16 years old, a combination of marijuana and huffing gas. His mother had come into town for an anti-drug conference, because she wanted to make sure that Jeff’s death would do some good. And she wanted to know from me what we were doing to make a difference.

I thought I was ready for the question. I told her about the $15 billion a year we were spending on arrest, on prosecutions, on interdiction of drugs on the border, and eradication in places like Colombia. She asked me what good that did for Jeff, and what good it was going to do for her other son, or the kids in her community.

It was a question I couldn’t answer.

So I did some research. I talked to the experts. I tried to find out what was working well and what wasn’t working at all. Based on what I learned, I joined with community leaders around my home town of Cincinnati to found the Coalition for a Drug-Free Greater Cincinnati.

It was a broad, grassroots coalition that we built to address the needs in our neighborhoods, not with a top-down approach from Washington, but with an evidence- and research-based one influenced by what we were seeing on the ground. We focused on prevention, awareness, education.

Because of the success I saw in Cincinnati, in 1997 I authored the Drug-Free Communities Act. The results have been beyond anything I imagined. There are now similar coalitions operating around all the country, 2,000 of which have been directly supported by that legislation.

To give you some idea of their impact, in the communities where these coalitions are operating, use of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana have declined significantly in all grade levels, with middle-school alcohol use down 20 percent, tobacco use down 26 percent, and marijuana use down 23 percent.

These coalitions are successful because they are a community asset and a community institution, not a government one. They reduce access to and availability of drugs, raise awareness about consequences of abuse, and build skills in youth, parents, and communities to deal with the drug of the moment. But one of the greatest strengths of community coalitions is the way they build partnerships within the community to change attitudes and change social norms. Because of this, they are well situated to deal with emerging drug trends, whether it’s heroin, prescription-drug abuse, or synthetic drugs.

Now there’s a lot of discussion in Washington about how to do a better job when it comes to treating drug addiction. Treatment is difficult. It’s expensive, and the success rate is low. That’s why we need new, innovative, science-based strategies to treat the disease of addiction, and the place we are seeing them developed is in our communities. For instance, Ohio has several pilot programs of an exciting new medication-assisted treatment that could be a game changer for recovery.

Washington is ill equipped to respond to what’s happening on the ground. States have been called the laboratory of democracy; these coalitions and other non-profits are the laboratory of drug-addiction treatment. They are in the field, getting their hands dirty. They are seeing what works and what doesn’t. So when we are thinking about policy solutions here, we need to be looking out there to what’s working.

One area where we are doing that and where we have seen the most progress on addiction treatment is in reentry for those leaving the criminal-justice system and returning home.  

Drug abuse starts in our communities, but it often ends in prison.

As many as 85 percent of people who go through the criminal-justice system struggle with drug and alcohol abuse and addiction, which in turn drives high recidivism rates. Prisons are crowded and 95 percent of people who are in jail or prison will be released one day, but according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than two-thirds of these newly released inmates are re-incarcerated within three years because they never deal with the issues that led to arrest in the first place. And when people are in and out of prison, it means more crimes,  more fathers and mothers who are not in their kids’ lives, more broken families — and since families are the heart of any community — more broken communities and more poverty, as well.

We have to get serious about rehabilitation if we want to change that. We can do so with a little constructive conservatism by supporting evidence-based programs that address the needs of newly released inmates in areas like job skills, substance abuse, mental health, housing, and family support.

We know that properly designed prisoner-reentry programs work. A decade ago I authored the Second Chance Act. Since its enactment in 2009, the act has supported over 300 local, tribal, and state agencies, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations working to help transition inmates back into their communities with the help they need to stay out of prison. Like the Drug Free Communities Act, we followed the principles of constructive conservatism: evidenced-based best practices, leverage, and outcome analysis.

The data show that this investment is paying off. States like my home state of Ohio that have embraced the Second Chance Act have seen significant decreases in recidivism. In Ohio and Texas, recidivism has fallen by 11 percent. It’s down 15 percent in Kansas and a remarkable 18 percent in Michigan, saving taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

Now I am working on a bipartisan basis to reauthorize Second Chance with an even more effective bottom-up approach, learning from our experience on the ground about what works and what doesn’t.

But I don’t want to stop there. I want to take what we have learned from Second Chance and apply those lessons directly to the federal prison system. New legislation I have introduced with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse — the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act — will implement the same proven, evidence-based methods in justice reinvestment and reentry in the federal system.

The Bureau of Prisons spends nearly $7 billion each year, and each inmate in federal prison costs taxpayers around $30,000 annually. Reductions in the recidivism rate will save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade. But the true fruit of our efforts will be the thousands of men and women who we can save from the downward spiral of drugs and repeated incarceration, who will instead come to know the dignity and self-respect that comes from a job and from taking care of a family.  

This is an area where we could use an assist from the president. President Obama recently announced that he would grant clemency to thousands of non-violent drug offenders. That may be within his power, but it’s like placing a Band-Aid on a deep wound. It may cover up the problem of prison overcrowding today, but it doesn’t address the deeper problem that drives recidivism. So instead of taking the easy path of executive action, I would ask the president to come to Congress and work with us to pass our legislation to reform federal prisons, leveraging our criminal-justice system to incentivize long-term solutions based on what we know works to help people get out of prison and stay out – things like diversion programs and drug courts, job training, and treatment for addiction and mental health.

— Senator Rob Portman is the junior senator from Ohio.