WHY THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM SPENDS MONEY ON BILLBOARDS AND CARTOONS BUT NOT REHAB AND PROBATION
I was driving down South Avenue in La Crosse this morning when a billboard caught my eye: it advised me to know the consequences of opiate use before I got “hooked.” A pill bottle was featured on a fishing hook to make sure we got the message. Clever. This billboard was brought to south-side travelers by the La Crosse County taxpayers.
As I looked at the billboard (and took my eyes off the road), I found myself wondering whether it would prevent even one person from developing a prescription opiate addition. After all, nobody wakes up, makes an appointment with a doctor and says “I’d really like to get addicted to opiates today.” People almost always end up on opiates because they’re injured, ill, or recovering from surgery and were liberally prescribed schedule II drugs. Responsibility for opiate use does, and should, rest largely with the people in control of the supply: physicians, pharmacists, and drug manufacturers. Not billboards. If anyone reads the South Avenue billboard, tracks me down, and sincerely tells me that reading the billboard saved them from opiate addiction, I’ll retract these remarks. I’m guessing that day will never come. But it got me thinking about other examples of vast sums of money allocated to meaningless public relations campaigns, when actual evidence-based programming suffers from lack of funding.
Everyone loves a good propaganda campaign in the criminal justice world. Take McGruff the Crime Dog. To date, the U.S. taxpayers have spent 100 million dollars on a cartoon character that takes bites out of crime. Really. One. Hundred. Million. Dollars. If 100 million dollars bought a real bipedal, English-speaking, trenchcoat-wearing dog that solved crimes, I’d be impressed. But when 100 million dollars are spent on a cartoon dog that every third-grade student can identify as fictional, then it’s money poorly spent. You think the people committing crimes are thinking about what McGruff would think of them? If not, then I have to second-guess the wisdom of this investment.
But the criminal justice system continues to allocate millions of dollars to propaganda campaigns with little to no efficacy. Take the “Click it or Ticket” campaigns you’ve probably seen on television, heard on the radio, and even seen on billboards (side note: billboards actively encourage distracted driving). Last year the U.S. government allocated 30 million dollars for this advertising, typically aired over Memorial Day, Labor Day, and high-volume travel periods. The result? Based on a subjective survey, at MOST, an eight percent increase in seatbelt use in the State of Texas. But absent monitoring of every driver and vehicle passenger in the relevant timeframes, realistic evaluation of this program is impossible, and statistically speaking, likely ineffectual.
Another prime example is the DARE program. You know, what every single millennial went through in sixth grade. A local police officer came to classrooms with the goal of scaring students into not using drugs. Kids were told that marijuana was a gateway drug, that pushers lurked around every corner, and that cops were always the good guys who could help you out whenever trouble was near (By the time I was in High School, my DARE officer had been arrested for hitting his wife and shoplifting a pair of boots.) By the end of school, most kids figured out that what they were told was complete bullshit, and the scare tactics ceased to be effective. But everyone got a free t-shirt. So how much did those t-shirts cost? Over the last ten years, the cost of funding DARE was 1.3 BILLION dollars. That’s a lot of cash for a propaganda program that has repeatedly been shown to be at best ineffective, but has also been linked to introducing kids to criminal behavior.
When President Trump declared a national emergency on opiates do you know how much money was unleashed to attack the problem? $57,000. That’s right in response to a national emergency, our federal government invested less in actual treatment programming than the cost of a Cadillac Escalade. This has been a perpetual problem when it comes to criminal justice funding. Jackson County founded a drug court that made remarkable strides in supervising habitual drug offenders and substantially reduced recidivism among their graduates. But several years ago the court ceased to exist, in part, due to lack of funding (they’re in business again now). Other specialty courts are forced to make tough decisions on who is worthy of intensive treatment and who will go to prison simply because the money isn’t there to supervise everyone. The vast majority of people on probation are not given substance abuse treatment founded on an evidence-based medical model because effective treatment costs money. If you don’t have private health insurance and aren’t able to handle a six month wait list to start programming, you’re out of luck. But we have 100 million dollars for McGruff because lawmakers love feel-good propaganda and will invest billions of dollars to feel like they’re doing something. When it comes time to fund rehab centers, methadone clinics, outpatient counseling, emergency Narcan shots, and meaningful medical intervention lawmakers are silent. However, the money is always there for prisons. Wisconsin taxpayers spend more than 1.1 billion dollars annually locking people up in prison, a disproportionate percentage of which are nonviolent drug offenders. Arrest, incarcerate, and spit back out on the street with no meaningful treatment or personalized release plan. We might as well put that money into billboards – they’ll be just as effective.
No single intervention will solve the opiate crisis. But until lawmakers are willing to allocate funds to the things that empirically make a difference in the criminal justice system, particularly (in my humble opinion) drug courts, inpatient rehabilitation, evidence-based probation systems and drug treatment based on a medical model, all the money spent on public relations campaigns will just be fodder for middle school kids to make fun of. So maybe in the future, McGruff can take a bite out of addiction and get his pal DARE to help foot the bill by shifting focus from billboards and cartoons to treatment and evidence-based practices.