The Link Between Overcrowded Prisons and a Certain Drug

images (1)Keith Humphreys points out a common misconception about incarceration rates related to drugs.

Over the past few months, I have given some talks about public policies that could reduce the extraordinary number of Americans who are in state or federal prison. The audiences in every case were blessedly bright and engaged. Yet they also had a broadly shared misunderstanding about how two drugs are related to the U.S. rate of imprisonment.

At each talk an audience member expressed the view that over-incarceration would drastically diminish soon because states were now legalizing marijuana. I responded by asking everyone present to shout out their estimate of what proportion of people currently in a state or federal prison were serving time for a marijuana-related offense. The modal answer across audiences was around one third, which explains the shocked looks that greeted my pointing out that even under the most liberal possible definition of a marijuana-linked incarceration (e.g., counting a marijuana trafficker with 10 other felony convictions as being in prison solely due to marijuana’s illegality), not even 1% of the U.S. prison population would be so classified.

Not wanting to discourage people, I said that there was a different drug that was responsible for many times as many imprisonments as marijuana and for which we could implement much better public policies. I then asked people to guess which drug it was. Give it a try yourself (answer after the jump).

It’s alcohol. People at my talks guessed every illegal drug imaginable but not alcohol, which for cultural, commercial and political reasons is not generally thought of as a drug, even though chemically that’s exactly what it is.

Police make more arrests related to the drug alcohol than they do for every other drug combined. Sizable proportions of people who commit homicide, rape, simple assault, aggravated assault and robbery are drunk at the time. And as everyone knows, alcohol is also a leading cause of vehicular manslaughter.

Why is this fact invisible in our culture?

This is not an argument for locking people up for possession, but it’s clear that legalizing a drug doesn’t end a drug problem. And, one has to wonder, how many of these harms would be reduced if alcohol weren’t a celebrated, legal drug.

via The Link Between Overcrowded Prisons and a Certain Drug.

4 thoughts on “The Link Between Overcrowded Prisons and a Certain Drug

  1. The article by Kieth Humphreys makes a valid point that alcohol related incarcerations are more prevalent than those for cannabis. However, what he fails to mention is that the overall incarceration rate in the US shows more people incarcerated for longer periods as a result of drug related offenses. A recent study of arrestees shows that those with alcohol involvement are more likely to be charged with a misdemeanor while those with drug involvement are charged with felonies – and consequently longer sentences if convicted.

    1. Hi Dr. Hoffmann,

      I’m familiar with your work and it’s an honor to have you read and comment.

      I agree completely with your point. I’m of the opinion that no one should be incarcerated for possession.

      The reason I shared Humphreys’ remarks is that I also believe that the potential harms of legalization are generally underestimated.

      When people point to alcohol and tobacco as models for other drugs, I get worried.

      This is not an argument for criminalization, just a reminder that legalization may solve some problems while worsening others. This should be considered when we discuss policy changes.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting!

  2. This is an important hot-button issue. Legalization of certain drugs, especially in the U.S. context elicits a great deal of emotional reaction. Empirical evidence, forthcoming in the journal Drugs & Alcohol Today, (titled ‘The Association between Drug Dependence and Drug Possession Charges’) shows U.S. arrestees who exhibited symptoms of drug dependence were primarily charged with drug possession over drug sales or other types of offenses. And, just over one-third (34%) of these arrestees were charged with marijuana possession. What does this mean for overcrowded prisons considering the criminal justice process? Many of these arrestees probably entered plea agreements for shorter sentences (dependent on quantity of the drug one had in their possession) while those charged with possession of other drugs (e.g. opiates, cocaine, amphetamines, etc) did not have the luxury of receiving shorter sentences. In sum, marijuana-related offenses may not comprise the predominant reason many offenders are in U.S. penitentiaries, but drug-related offenses do, in-fact, comprise the vast majority of felony offenders (for mostly possession or non-violent/property-related crimes) who are occupying correctional facilities and contributing to the overcrowding problem. It’s a complex, multifaceted issue and legalization may be but one of many alternatives U.S. criminal justice officials need to consider. The side-effects of legalization, as mentioned above, will certainly have to be addressed as well.

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