A recent Pew Study suggests that imprisoning drug offenders for longer prison sentences does not reduce drug problems in any given state. In other words, there is no statistical data showing a relationship between prison terms and drug misuse.
To test this, Pew compared state drug imprisonment rates with three important measures of drug problems— self-reported drug use (excluding marijuana), drug arrest, and overdose death—and found no statistically significant relationship between drug imprisonment and these indicators. In other words, higher rates of drug imprisonment did not translate into lower rates of drug use, arrests, or overdose deaths.
The study found that nearly 300,000 people are held in state and federal prisons in the United States for drug-law violations, up from less than 25,000 in 1980. These offenders served more time than in the past: Those who left state prisons in 2009 had been behind bars an average of 2.2 years, a 36 percent increase over 1990, while prison terms for federal drug offenders jumped 153 percent between 1988 and 2012, from about two to roughly five years.
The study said that as the U.S. confronts a growing epidemic of opioid misuse, policymakers and public health officials need a clear understanding of whether, how, and to what degree imprisonment for drug offenses affects the nature and extent of the nation’s drug problems. To explore this question, The Pew Charitable Trusts examined publicly available 2014 data from federal and state law enforcement, corrections, and health agencies. The analysis found no statistically significant relationship between state drug imprisonment rates and three indicators of state drug problems: self-reported drug use, drug overdose deaths, and drug arrests.
The findings—which Pew sent to the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis in a letter dated June 19, 2017—reinforce a large body of prior research that cast doubt on the theory that stiffer prison terms deter drug misuse, distribution, and other drug-law violations. The evidence strongly suggests that policymakers should pursue alternative strategies that research shows work better and cost less.
“Although no amount of policy analysis can resolve disagreements about how much punishment drug offenses deserve, research does make clear that some strategies for reducing drug use and crime are more effective than others and that imprisonment ranks near the bottom of that list. And surveys have found strong public support for changing how states and the federal government respond to drug crimes.”
“Putting more drug-law violators behind bars for longer periods of time has generated enormous costs for taxpayers, but it has not yielded a convincing public safety return on those investments,” concluded the study. “Instead, more imprisonment for drug offenders has meant limited funds are siphoned away from programs, practices, and policies that have been proved to reduce drug use and crime.”
My opinion? Public safety should be the number one reason we incarcerate. However, penalties should be the most effective, proportional, and cost-efficient sanction to achieve that goal. This would create more uniform sentences and reduce disparities, while preserving judicial discretion when necessary.
Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face drug charges. If convicted, your loved ones risk facing an unnecessary amount of incarceration. Only a competent and experienced criminal defense attorney can reduce of criminal charges and/or facilitate the implementation of sentencing alternatives which reduce the amount of prison time an offender faces.