An Ounce of Prevention

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This has never been more true than when we look at the issue of crimes, prisons and rehabilitation.

Virginia spends $1.3 billion per year on the Department of Corrections. That’s $1.3 billion not going to schools, roads and public services.

As the DOC budget has grown, community service boards and schools have seen their budgets shrink. Yet education, treatment and opportunity are the very things that keep people out of prison. Shortsightedness will cost the state money down the road. More than that, it will cost human capital. Crimes will be committed, people and their property will suffer, lives will be thrown away because young men and women will not receive the help they need. Hurt people hurt people. Those who see no legitimate path forward will take an illegitimate one.

For years, I have volunteered in a mental health treatment unit here at Buckingham Correctional. I teach classes, facilitate programs and work one-on-one with guys here at the prison. Often the first message I struggle to get across is that each life has value. Most have been told, for a lifetime, that they are nothing, will never be anything. That’s powerful programming to overcome. I believed I would be a lawyer or counselor when I grew up. Most guys believed they would be dead or in prison by 18.

In conjunction with mental health staff, we provide support to address specific mental health issues. The remainder of our services address addiction and trauma, teach coping skills, build positive habits and work to lift hopelessness.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is a successful treatment modality. Consisting of mindfulness, emotional regulation, distress tolerance and interpersonal communication skills it addresses the whole of a person. The lessons can greatly help those suffering from addiction, mood and personality disorders and those just struggling with existential pain.

There is specific treatment for addiction and 12 step programs are available. There is also a focus on trauma, healing old wounds and rebuilding broken relationships.

The point is that all of these classes and services could be made available before prison. By expanding education and treatment services, kids could be prepared to navigate the challenges of life and given a chance rather than receiving treatment only once they have come to prison, caused great harm and become stigmatized.

Many people have argued that this is outside the purview of schools or governments and should be addressed in the home. That’s great for those who have healthy, loving homes to return to. After years of watching grown men cry as they recount being starved, molested and abused by parents and guardians I cannot believe we should leave this to families.

The playing field is not level. Some people have little chance to begin with. Failing to address those needs and issues throws away lives and hurts everyone by continuing the cycle of poverty, crime and incarceration. Not showing up for those in need means suffering the consequences one day.

Even if it was modestly successful, this shift could be huge. There are 37,000 men and women in Virginia’s prison system. If early treatment could keep just 10% from offending that is 3,700 individuals not committing crimes, at least 3,700 victims not suffering and $111,000,000 per year available for schools, treatment services, roads and emergencies.

So, as budget cut talks begin just remember, saving a penny now will mean paying a pound later. Cutting school budgets and public health services will mean condemning another generation to make mistakes and condemning everyone to suffer the consequences of those mistakes. Mental health treatment and programming in schools will prevent crime. Let’s fund programming and training for families and individuals. Let’s give those in need a chance and save everyone a lot of headache by doing so.