The second in a series by Cliff Lewis
Dave Bender, Executive Director of Compass Mark, is optimistic about the potential for addiction treatment services to improve quality of life in Lancaster County. According to Bender, “a stronger society” can be built by working to inform and empower individuals in their personal choices regarding addiction, rather than merely imposing prohibitive laws.
However, Bender would assert, it is the absence of this approach on the State level that brings about the bulk of Compass Mark’s challenges.
According to Bender,
“Substance abuse has always been treated as a moral issue and as a criminal justice issue, and it’s rarely been looked at as a public health issue….For the most part, the typical elected official—whether you’re talking about the State or Federal level—rarely sees this as a public health issue….”
In the mid-1980s, Compass Mark spoke out against mandatory sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders, Bender said. Such legislation was emblematic of an expensive tendency toward incarceration as a manner of dealing with drug addiction and distribution: “Back then,” Bender noted, “The state prison budget was $250 million a year; now it’s $1.8 billion and growing rapidly.”
From Bender’s perspective, a direct way to abate these swelling prison costs would be for the State to place a definitive cap on such expenditures: “Somebody at the State level has got to have the courage to begin to cap that figure,” which would necessitate progressive investment in reentry, treatment, and harm reduction initiatives—which have all been known to reduce the need for incarceration.
But the failure of State legislators to complete a budget for the current fiscal year has only further compounded the challenges for treatment organizations like Compass Mark. In the absence of funding from both the State and Federal Government (which passes through the State), Compass Mark “could end up closing down in a month,” Bender said. And the work of planning school programs for the coming year has been multiplied by uncertainty of funding: “We have to come up with three plans: One plan for no money, one plan for some money, and one plan for the money that we got last year.”
With Harrisburg stalemated over a $3.2 billion budget gap, and with $1.8 billion State dollars tied up in corrections, Bender cannot help but observe a recurring theme:
“We’re helping the State Budget by reducing recidivism, which means we’re definitely helping that $1.8 billion prison budget from getting bigger….So we’re reducing those numbers, but by cutting us off, and cutting off that prevention that should continue, they’re just going to be looking at a prison budget that’s $2.5 billion to $3 billion ten years from now.”