The jumping off point is a long article published in the LA Times today (4/1/07) on Prop. 36, the 2000 California initiative that allows first- and second-time nonviolent drug offenders to be  sentenced to drug treatment rather than incarceration.

The article recapitulates the standard position of Prop. 36 critics who argue that drug treatment does not keep all people permanently off of drugs. And the article fails to ask the same question that is relevant in so many other arenas of drug policy debate: compared to what?

The first graph of the article points out, for example, that “nearly half of offenders sentenced under [Prop. 36] fail to complete rehab” and the second graph of the article calls this a “high failure rate.”

But is this, in fact, a high failure rate? Compared to what? Does throwing people in prison, to take the most obvious alternative approach, produce better results in terms of keeping people permanently off drugs? Somehow, I doubt it. But there’s no way to tell from reading the article. It provides no comparative data one way or the other, other than to note that “high failure rates are typical among drug treatment programs.”

A lot of drug treatment programs fail. Addiction is a difficult thing to treat. My guess is that giving people treatment is more likely to help them avoid relapse than would throwing them in prison. That guess might be wrong, but the only way to know for sure is to compare relapse rates.

When we don’t ask this simple question — “compared to what?” — our judgments about policies come unglued from reality. Because in the real world, there are no perfect solutions. There are simply  different kinds of tradeoffs, different costs and benefits. In morally charged areas of the law, we tend to overlook this because we have such strong feelings about the way other people behave, and we feel that we have to send the right “message” as a society. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it can obscure the reality that policies are not just ways for society to advertise moral positions. Policies have real-world costs, real-world implications.  And sometimes our insistence on feeling righteous makes us forget to ask the obvious questions about whether the actual outcomes for real people will be better or worse under the policy we advocate.