New study finds one in four prisoners locked up for drugs

Press Release July 26, 2000
Media Contact

Jason Zeidenberg, Justice Policy Institute at 202- 737-7270 or Vincent Schiraldi, Justice Policy Institute at 202-737-7270

Nearly one in four prisoners behind bars in America is incarcerated for a drug offense according to a new study scheduled to be released next week. The report by the Justice Policy Institute found that there are almost as many inmates imprisoned for drug offenses today (458,131) as the entire US prisoner population of 1980 (474,368). The report, entitled Poor Prescription: The Costs of Imprisoning Drug Offenders in the United States found that, since 1980, the number of persons imprisoned for drug offenses has increased 11-fold while the number of violent offenders entering state prisons has doubled and the number of nonviolent prisoners has tripled. It will cost states, counties, and the federal government over $9 billion to imprison 458,131 drug offenders this year. Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D-Michigan), used the occasion of the report’s release to announce legislation that would provide treatment in lieu of incarceration for non-violent drug users, supporting with federal dollars reform efforts like those proposed in New York and California.

“The casualties from this nation’s drug war have continued to mount, with no end in sight,” stated Mr. Conyers. The federal government must support alternatives to wholesale incarceration that stress treatment for drug addicted offenders. Only by breaking the cycle of abuse, trafficking and incarceration can we find a way out of this nightmare.”

“America does indeed have a drug problem,” stated JPI Director and report co-author Vincent Schiraldi. “And that problem is that we’ve focused on imprisonment as the near-exclusive solution to substance abuse, while giving short shrift to treatment and prevention.”

Among the report’s other key findings:

  • From 1986 to 1996, the number of whites imprisoned for drug offenses has doubled, while the number of blacks imprisoned for drug offenses has increased five-fold, and the number of young blacks imprisoned for drug offenses has increased six-fold.
  • Each year since 1989, more people have been sent to prison for drug offenses than for violent offenses.
  • There was a statistically significant association between higher incarceration rates of drug offenders and greater , not less, drug use in the states examined.
  • California had the highest “drug incarceration” rate of any state in the United States. The number of Californians locked up for drug offenses increased 25-fold since 1980, and there are now twice as many Californians in prison for drug offenses (44,455) as the entire California prison population in 1980.
  • Nearly half of all drug offenders imprisoned in California last year were imprisoned for simple possession of drugs. In New York, 91% of those imprisoned last year for drug offenses were locked up for possession or one of the state’s three lowest level drug offenses.
  • In six states — Hawaii, Texas, South Carolina, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Maine — drug commitment rates for young whites actually declined between 1986 and 1996, while comparable black rates experienced two- to eight-fold increases.
  • America imprisons 100,000 more persons for drug offenses than the entire European Union imprisons for all offenses, even though the EU has 100 million more citizens than the US.

“The war on drugs has never been a war on drugs per se. It has always been a war on people,” stated report co-author Barry Holman. “As the data show, that war has increasingly become a war against African Americans.” The report comes at a time when America’s drug policies are under increased criticism, and when policy alternatives have arisen around the country. For example:

  • In May, an initiative qualified for the November ballot in California which would substantially reduce drug commitments to prison and fund an additional $120 million in drug treatment.
  • On June 8, Human Rights Watch released a report that found that the war on drugs had been waged overwhelmingly against African Americans.
  • On June 22, New York State’s Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye announced a new drug reform initiative that would provide treatment in lieu of imprisonment for 10,000 New York State drug-addicted offenders.
  • On July 29 and August 11, two Shadow Conventions are set to coincide with the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, with drug policy reform at the top of their agenda.

Poor Prescription: The Costs of Imprisoning Drug Offenders in the United States is available at the JPI Website.

The Justice Policy Institute is a research and public policy organization in Washington, DC. JPI is a project of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. This research was funded by a generous grant from the Open Society Institute.

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

Sign up for updates from DPA.