Making Drug Policy At The State Level

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The prison system is overpopulated and costing millions of dollars on a state and federal level annually. That is a big problem but a problem that could be rectified if the system would stop incarcerating addicts and stop treating them as criminal rather than sick individuals that need treatment. New York became the first state in the union to require all nonviolent criminals found guilty of drug charges to be offered treatment for drug addiction instead of serving jail time. The benefits are obvious: this policy will sharply reduce the number of repeat offenders clogging the courts, relieve crowding in state prisons and jails, and help addicts conquer their disease.

Some are reluctant to embrace this policy as they do not want to pin the label on the addict that he has a disease, believing that will lead to depression and a sense of powerlessness. However, the facts are the facts and this can not be a system where experts know that the addict has a disease that will need to be battled for the rest of their life but they are not going to tell him because they are afraid he will become powerless and depressed. It is likely that by the time an addict needs treatment that he could not likely be more powerless and depressed.

Law enforcement has controlled state drug control strategy for the past two decades. Rapidly rising drug arrests coupled with stiff new sentencing laws have led to an exponential increase in the number of drug offenders in state prisons. The number of state inmates for whom drug offenses were the most serious charge jumped from 19,000 in 1980 to 236,800 in 1998, this surge in state drug prisoner’s accounts for nearly one-third of the expansion in the nationwide prison population, which has quadrupled in size since 1980. The rate of growth in the states’ drug prisoner population was 50 times greater than that of the U.S. population overall.

Drug offenders account for half of the increase in the total population of nonviolent state prisoners (BJS, 2000). In 1998, the majority of the 236,800 imprisoned drug offenders had either no criminal history (17 percent) or prior convictions only for drugs or other nonviolent offenses (59 percent) (BJS, 1997). The number of women serving time for state drug offenses has risen ten-fold since 1986, nearly twice the rate of increase for men (BJS, 1991). Many women inmates have no criminal history or involvement with high-level trafficking, and have been implicated in drug crimes through spouses or boyfriends.

The states spent approximately $40 billion to incarcerate drug offenders during the 1990s. Spending accelerated sharply in the mid-1980s and has been climbing ever since. During President Clinton’s first term, the states spent three times more to incarcerate drug offenders ($16 billion from 1993-1996) (BJS, 1996). States that have embraced the newer “drug court” have seen favorable results. The policies must be changed on a national level to treat addicts rather than incarcerate them.


Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).  Correctional Populations in the United States, 1997.  November  2000.  NCJ 177613.

A. Blumstein & A. J. Beck.  “Population Growth in U.S. Prisons, 1980- 1996,” in M. Tonry & J. Petersilia (eds), Prisons:  Crime and Justice, A Review of Research, Volume 26.  Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).  Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2000.  March 2001.  NCJ 185989.

Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).  Correctional Populations in the United States, 1997.  November  2000.  NCJ 177613.

Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).  Substance Abuse and Treatment, State and Federal Prisoners, 1997.  January 1999.  NCJ 172871.

Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).  Survey of State Prison Inmates, 1991.  May 1993.  NCJ 136949.

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