Do Drug Treatment Centers Increase Local Crime Rates?

Yellow crime scene tape

Residents are usually among the first ones to know when their community changes. When that change involves sharing an address with a drug treatment center, a range of emotions soon follow, all of them falling somewhere along the Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) spectrum. Such news can spark fear, anxiety, paranoia, even anger.

Opening a drug treatment center or a sober living home among homes can be viewed unfavorably for all sorts of reasons. Though a facility of this kind helps many people leave drug and alcohol abuse behind, negative things are associated with is existence, such as high crime rates, noise, traffic, and a lack of safety. 

Some are nervous about who the center will bring into the neighborhood and whether those “strangers” will roam the area, putting others at risk. Then there are concerns about plummeting property values as well.

In one case from 2018, residents and officials in a Texas city expressed their opposition to a bid to open a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in their area. One objection was the proposed site’s proximity to an elementary school in what has been described as a family-oriented neighborhood.

The company responded that the objections at the time were premature because the sale had not been finalized. It also said residents of the proposed center would be monitored closely, as required by rigorous state and industry laws. 

Even one proposed New York drug treatment center’s offer to reach out to neighbors with efforts to raise awareness about addiction wasn’t enough to ease concerns. A councilman was concerned that the facility’s presence could add to an area that is seeing a great deal of growth.

Lingering Concerns About Crime

Concerns about crime are hardly new, as it happens just about anywhere and everywhere. Despite the opposition and beliefs that drug treatment centers cause local crime rates to spike, researchers offer a different view.

A 2016 analysis published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs examined if there’s any truth to the notion that violent crime would become an even bigger problem if a publicly funded drug treatment facility serves a community. 

Particularly, this analysis, led by C. Debra M. Furr-Holden, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Department of Mental Health, wanted to find out if the centers were experiencing more violence than that happening around other commercial businesses. Violent crimes include homicide, manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.

For the analysis, researchers compared 2011 violent crime data statistics from Baltimore’s police department. They geocoded and mapped sites, and after their analysis concluded that “Violent crime associated with drug treatment centers is similar to that associated with liquor stores and is less frequent than that associated with convenience stores and corner stores.”

The study also notes that while residents may support initiatives for special populations–such as those who have substance use disorders and mental health disorders–in theory, they don’t when those initiatives take up residence in their neighborhoods.

Researchers also wanted their study to help people make informed opinions and decisions about such initiatives.

They write, “Empirical data on whether DTCs are associated with increased levels of violence may provide information to (a) help communities make informed, data-driven decisions about whether to support such centers and (b) help advocates mitigate strong opposition with evidence as opposed to moral or rhetorical arguments.”

As a John Hopkins Magazine article about the 2016 study notes, “The standard public anxiety about a DTC attracting crime to the neighborhood is not borne out by the data. Crimes tend to cluster around any sort of public establishment because stores, clinics, etc., draw people to the streets, and crime happens where there are concentrations of people. 

“But according to these research results, you are significantly more likely to encounter violent crime near a liquor or corner store than a DTC, and neighborhoods often recruit the former (especially corner food stores) while trying to discourage the latter.”

Still, officials in some places believe there is a connection between crime and centers that treat substance use disorders.

The Orange County Register of California reported in 2017 that some officials there linked a rise in petty crimes to places where these centers are located in concentrated numbers.

“‘We’re starting to understand it is directly related to the increase in the recovery homes in our city,” Katrina Foley, mayor of Costa Mesa, told the newspaper, which noted that Costa Mesa is one of California’s recovery-heavy cities.

The newspaper did note that finding recent data that explores links between petty crime and treatment centers is hard to find.

A Costa Mesa Police Department spokesperson told the newspaper, “There is no statistical crime data gathered that traces back a crime to a sober living facility to show how these facilities impact crime.”

What About Those Property Values?

The National Bureau for Economic Research released a study in January 2019 to test if substance use disorder treatment centers actually lower property values when they move in.

Lead study researcher Catherine MacLean told Marketwatch for its report on the study, “For most people, purchasing a home is the largest financial investment they are going to make in their lives and the most important financial asset they have. So we believe people’s concerns about decreasing property values are valid, but we wanted to test that.”

Marketwatch explains that past analysis of economic models have shown that property values may fall anywhere from 3.4 percent to 4.6 percent when substance abuse treatment centers are built. 

But in the bureau’s study, researchers found no measurable difference in property values when it adjusted the economic model for the property values that existed before the center was introduced and the benefits for nearby businesses. They studied property values data that was collected between 2003 and 2016 in the Seattle area.

Opposition to centers opening in residential areas has been made even more challenging for substance abuse centers to find a place to call home, MacLean told MarketWatch. 

“If ‘not in my backyard’ concerns prevent centers from locating in convenient settings, this sub-optimal location may make it harder for patients to get into treatment and remain in treatment, which will limit our ability as a society to reduce substance abuse disorders,” MacLean said.

Is Opening More Treatment Centers the Answer?

The U.S. is in the middle of an opioid overdose epidemic, and there is evidence that stimulant addiction epidemic is on the rise as well. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported in 2016 that there are more than 20 million people in the U.S. age 12 and older who need substance abuse treatment. In many cases, treatment at a professional, accredited facility is the only way people can get the second chance they need after abusing drugs and alcohol.

SAMHSA’s report highlights the consequences of substance use disorders (SUDs). It writes, “The consequences of SUD can be costly to people and the nation as a whole because they are often associated with negative outcomes, such as involvement with the justice system, occurrence of chronic health conditions, and poorer health outcomes.”

A Brookings report cites research that supports opening more treatment facilities across the United States to expand health care to the people who need it. Why?  “New research shows that offering broad access to treatment for these problems is not only compassionate but also a cost-effective way to reduce crime rates,” Brookings writes.

The report also suggests that communities left safer after treatment facilities move in should invest in both the facilities and the hiring of more law enforcement officers.

As Furr-Holden told John Hopkins Magazine, “Drug treatment centers are a public health need; they are as necessary as urgent care centers and emergency departments.

“Our research shows that DTCs do not impact communities any more than other commercial businesses. Moving forward, communities should work with researchers, policymakers, and DTCs to have an honest dialogue regarding placement of this needed resource.”

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