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Estimated Costs to the Pennsylvania Criminal Justice System Resulting From the Opioid Crisis

Gary Zajac, PhD; Samaan Aveh Nur, BA; Derek A. Kreager, PhD; and Glenn Sterner, PhD
We tallied and summed the difference in the projected baseline and actual costs for 2007 to 2016 from each of these sectors to create a final preliminary estimation of state costs incurred by the CJS in combating costs attributable to the opioid crisis during this period. All amounts have been inflation-adjusted to reflect costs in 2017 dollars. Our analysis differs from the reviewed literature in several respects (Figure 1). First, we analyzed costs across a 10-year period. Second, the ambit of our analysis were state-specific costs rather than municipal, county, or federal costs. Third, only data collected directly from Pennsylvania state CJS agencies themselves were included; we did not use the national surveys utilized in the prior studies.

Gross Cost Estimates

The following section presents the findings on state-related CJS costs resulting from the opioid crisis in Pennsylvania. We present the results in the usual order in which an offender would proceed through the CJS, from arrest to trial to incarceration. We focus on these 3 domains of costs because they represent the major cost sectors of the CJS. There may well be other special and ad hoc costs that arise from a challenge such as the opioid crisis, including special programs or investigative efforts implemented by the state to deal with it, but those costs would need to be addressed in future research.

Arrest-Related Costs

Our analysis of the impact of the opioid crisis on the operations of the PSP over the period 2007 to 2016 revealed a cumulative net cost (actual over baseline) of -$1,230,396. These costs are represented graphically in Figure 2.

Costs were lower than what was expected, even with the opioid crisis. As explained earlier, PSP was able to provide only a minimal cost estimate based on the expenses incurred from a simple possession arrest. Arrests related to complex drug trafficking cases were found to be considerably higher in cost but are not calculable at this point. The arrest data, provided by PSP, included both possession and sales offenses. Thus, the negative figure reported would almost certainly become positive if the costs for the more complex sales cases could be figured. As will be seen, these “savings” are easily washed out by the net costs to the courts and corrections sectors.

The other factor worth noting is that relatively few of these arrests occur at the state level. The yearly opioid-related arrests by PSP crested at approximately 2000 during this period, suggesting that most opioid-related law enforcement activity is occurring within local police departments, which is beyond the scope of the current report.

Court-Related Costs

Our analysis of the impact of the opioid crisis on the operations of the state courts in Pennsylvania reveals a cumulative net cost (actual over baseline) of $73,959,475, or approximately $7.4 million per year over the study period. These costs are represented in Figure 3.

This is based on an assumption of parity in case-processing costs among different types of cases. Of course, it is likely that, for example, a capital murder case would typically consume more court resources than a simple drug possession case, but no practical way exists of sorting that out. However, other than in the 2 largest counties, Philadelphia and Allegheny, capital cases are rare, and simple drug cases vastly outnumber cases like capital murders that would more commonly require an extended jury or bench trial. Approximately 90% of adjudications result from a plea, rather than a trial, so it seems a reasonable supposition to treat most cases as being similar in terms of costs. Moreover, a typical day on a court docket will witness proceedings for many cases being processed in succession, and even in parallel, thus further complicating efforts to discretely cost out a specific case. One potential avenue for future research is the examination of court costs and fees that that are levied against defendants as part of criminal convictions as a measure of individual case-processing costs. However, these fees can be complex and are beyond the scope of the present study.

Incarceration-Related Costs

Our analysis of the impact of the opioid crisis on the operations of the state prison system in Pennsylvania revealed a cumulative net cost (actual over baseline) of $453,577,239, or approximately $45 million per year over the study period. These costs are represented graphically in Figure 4.

Prison-related costs are, unsurprisingly, higher than those for the courts. Providing care, custody, and control of a state prison inmate is among the most expensive propositions in the entire CJS. The current annual per-inmate cost in Pennsylvania approaches $50,000. The involvement of an individual offender with the courts is a much less intensive and less expensive activity. And, as with the court cost estimates, the prison cost estimates are based on an average cost per inmate, as calculated routinely by the PADOC. The costs may likely vary among inmates (although not necessarily driven by offense type, but more by factors such as inmate health and age), but these differences are not readily calculable.

In addition to the opioid-related corrections operating costs projections discussed above, the opioid crisis is having more discrete impacts on PADOC. During the calendar year 2017, PADOC experienced 180 overdoses leading to 18 fatalities in their Community Corrections Centers. Newly committed inmates, who indicated opioids as being a drug of choice for them, doubled from 6% of all new admissions in 2010 to 12% in 2015. The crisis has greatly driven PADOC’s use of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) over the past several years. The use of MAT in general correctional settings and within PADOC was traditionally a nonstarter. These MAT products were traditionally seen as risky within a correctional setting and were often seen as a “crutch” by many corrections drug counselors.

The opioid crisis has served as a watershed, leading to a shift in culture and to the more widespread use of MAT in the PADOC. The PADOC now employs a dedicated MAT coordinator to oversee the efforts. During 2017, PADOC administered 307 doses of naloxone and 468 doses of vivitrol, and employed 13 MAT social worker positions, for a combined expenditure of $1.1 million. Moreover, PADOC, during fiscal year 2016-2017, awarded grants of $1.5 million of state funds to 11 county jails to assist them with their own nascent MAT efforts. The PADOC has also established 6 new therapeutic communities in the state correctional institutions that will be dedicated specifically to the treatment of OUD.

Limitations And Future Directions

We conclude that the total costs to the state CJS in Pennsylvania attributable to the opioid crisis for the period 2007 to 2016 are $526,306,318, or approximately $53 million per year, adjusted to 2017 dollars. This covers the primary domains of state arrests, courts, and corrections. The cost estimates related to the opioid crisis that are reported here reflect direct effects, or offenses that are clearly coded in the criminal justice system data as being drug-related.

Several caveats are worth noting. First, regarding the state corrections data, many of the drug-related commitments are likely to be for drug selling (eg, possession with intent to deliver, [PWID]), not drug use. Some of those convicted of offenses such as PWID are not necessarily using drugs. The great majority of convictions for simple possession (ie, for personal use) result in a nonincarcerative sanction such as probation, which in Pennsylvania is a county-level function. Still, drug selling is part and parcel of the opioid crisis and is rightly included in our estimates. The assumption here is that the prescription opioid crisis resulted in more illegal drug dealers to meet the demand. This limitation pertains less to our arrest and court cost estimates, as all levels of drug offenders will have proceeded through those 2 phases of the criminal justice process, whereas only the more serious convictions terminate in state corrections.

Second, the growth in costs for courts and corrections are likely driven both by increased misuse of prescription opioids and by increases in (nonprescription opioid) heroin cases. The operating assumption is that over-prescription and misuse of prescription opioids directly contributed to growth in the heroin market.

Third, many convictions for offenses that are not drug-related may well be fueled in part by OUD. For example, a person with an OUD may commit burglaries to support their OUD and may sell drugs for the same reason. Dorsey and Middleton, with the Bureau of Justice Statistics, examined this connection more closely and reported that nationally in 2004, 17% of state-prison inmates indicated that they committed their current offense in order to acquire money for drugs. This rate was much higher for property offenders, at 30.3%.11 Moreover, the National Crime Victimization Survey from 2007 found that 26% of victims of violent crime indicated that they believed their attackers were under the influence of substances. The 2004 BJS Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities found that 32% of state inmates reported being under the influence of substances while committing their current offense, and again, this was higher for property offenders, at 39%. Substance use is also considered to be 1 of the “Central 8” risk factors for recidivism.12

The PADOC conducted a survey of approximately 1800 newly committed inmates over a 2-month period, asking them how drugs interacted with and influenced their criminal offending, regardless of their current committing offense. Results showed that that 22.2% of the inmates were under the influence of opioids at the time of their most recent offense, with 14.1% indicating that opioids were the only substance they were using. Moreover, 15.2% indicated that they committed their current crime to acquire funds to support their OUD.13 This type of study does not always break out the impact of opioids specifically on crimes not related to drugs, but they do establish that substance use plays an important role in the commission of crime writ large. Although we are not able to estimate the costs related to crime overall in the current report, future work should examine this aspect of the opioid crisis more closely and make a preliminary effort to factor in such costs.

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