In the US, how much does the government pay for drug treament vs drug-related imprisonment?

I am aware that the question is controversial and that there may be many ways of counting how much money is spent on each. Yet I’d like this to remain more fact-based than opinion-based. This isn’t a thread to debate whether the war on drugs or private prisons are a good idea, it’s to ascertain the answer to the question posed in the title.

By “government” I mean to include all levels of government, not just federal. If only federal figures are available, fair enough.

Your question is probably too broad to get an answer, especially if you mean to include all levels of government. Just offhand, I know that my state has at least three state agencies which fund drug treatment for their clients through contracts with programs and my city has at least another three. Then there’s Medicaid ( I don’t know if you can separate the amount for drug treatment out from other sorts of counseling) and the drug treatment available in prisons and jails ( often as an alternative to a longer period of incarceration)

There are a couple of really big problems with this question:

  1. It’s very vague. For example “drug-related imprisonment” – does that include only people convicted of drug crimes? What about a burglar who is robbing houses to pay for his drug addiction – is he included? How about DWI drivers, or people convicted of assault in a drunken bar fight? (Alcohol is by far the drug that has most expensive effect on society.)

  2. Assuming you could pin down the above issues, you could probably get a cost figure for “drug-related imprisonment”, since that is paid for by the government.

But most drug treatment is done as part of the medical system, and is paid for by patients and their insurance of HMO plans. Some of those plans )MedicAid for the poor, Medicare for the elderly, VA for ex-military, etc.) are publicly-funded programs, and you could probably get cost figures for them. But where/how would you get figures for the private insurance plans, or bills paid directly by patients? Those figures likely are not public information.


The basic cost of imprisonment is pretty easy:

It’s about $27,000 per year per prisoner.

Cost of drug rehab ranges from $10,000-$32,000, depending on the level of service needed.

If you’re trying to do a cost/benefit comparison, you’d need to look at (among other things) the average length of prison stay for a drug-related offense, and also whether rehab reduces the likelihood of future incarceration.

Note that if a person commits theft or assault in support of their drug habit, rehab isn’t really an option for that. But if rehab can prevent future incidents of theft/assault (because the person is no longer trying to feed an additiction), then that ought to be considered part of the savings produced by selecting rehab instead of prison when drug possession charges are involved.

That figure is for federal inmates. Most people imprisoned for drug crimes (in fact, for just about any crimes except immigration violations) are in state lockups. States spend $31,000 per year (.pdf, see page 10), but that’s the absolute cost per inmate rather than the marginal cost.

The average drug crime sentence looks to be about 45 months (based on my assumptions about the relative frequencies of possession and trafficking convictions.)