Report: Incarceration Does Not Affect Drug Abuse or Overdose Rates

Two people walking in prisonIncarceration has no effect on drug use, according to a letter by the Pew Charitable Trust sent to the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. The letter argues that neither low nor high incarceration levels are linked to a reduction in drug use.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced plans to enact tougher drug sentencing laws. The change reverses reforms under the Obama administration and encourages incarcerating drug offenders for the maximum possible sentence. The penalties target all drug offenders, including low-level users and dealers, for whom previous Attorney General Eric Holder had relaxed sentences.

Incarceration Doesn’t Affect Drug Use

The letter highlights data from Pew’s public safety performance project, which compared corrections, law enforcement, and health data. Researchers found no statistically significant correlation between state drug incarceration and drug abuse. Rates of drug abuse remained similar whether states enacted harsh or lenient sentencing laws.

Louisiana, for example, has the highest rate of drug-related incarceration, but the 13th-highest rate of illicit drug use. Massachusetts, with the lowest rate of drug-related incarceration, ranks 39th in drug use, but 13th in overdoses.

For people addicted to drugs, the threat of prison time has little effect on drug use, the letter says. This means that expanding penalties or revving up enforcement efforts is not likely to slow the epidemic of drug addiction or overdose.

The Politics of Drug Incarceration

Incarcerating drug offenders has long been the subject of political debate. According to The Sentencing Project, the United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation. Incarceration rates have increased by more than 500% in the last 40 years. Data show this change is largely attributable to the war on drugs.

Nonviolent drug offenders account for 46.3% of the federal prison population. Some drug offenders will serve the rest of their lives in prison. So-called “three strikes” laws mean that even some marijuana offenders can be sentenced to life in prison for repeat drug offenses.

Inmates are more likely than the general population to experience mental health issues, including depression, trauma-related conditions, and thoughts of suicide. People with mental health symptoms are also 4.5 times more likely to be arrested, contributing to data showing more than half of all inmates in the U.S. have a diagnosable mental health condition.


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