The Corner

‘Prison Math’ and the War on Drugs

In my Reason column this month, I look at the number of people in jail in the United States, as part of their incarceration-themed July issue (other topics covered include the wrongly convicted and the impact of allowing more library access to prisoners). I should say that when I started my research, I didn’t know very much about the topic. What I found is that our prisons are packed with nonviolent offenders who are incarcerated for victimless crimes as a product of a war on drugs that has failed. It is really a tragic story.

There are over 2 million people incarcerated in local, state, and federal prisons in the United States, an incarceration rate of 743 per 100,000 people, which is high for a democracy (the incarceration rate is 325 in Israel, 217 in Poland, 154 in England and Wales, 96 in France, 71 in Denmark, and 32 in India). The number of people in jail has increased dramatically since the 1980s. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, incarceration rates between 1880 and 1970 ranged from about 100 to 200 prisoners per 100,000 people. After 1980, the inmate population began to grow much more rapidly than the overall population and the rate climbed from about 220 in 1980 to 458 in 1990, 683 in 2000, and 753 in 2008.

This increase didn’t have anything to do with a rise in crime. It mainly reflected changes in the correctional policies that determine who goes to prison and for how long. In particular, it had very much to do with the war on drugs.

Nonviolent drug offenders now account for about one-fourth of all inmates in the United States, up from less than 10 percent in 1980. The costs, of course, are staggering: State correctional spending now totals $52 billion a year, consuming one out of 14 general fund dollars; spending on corrections is the second fastest growth area of state budgets, following Medicaid.

The real tragedy is that so many children’s lives are destroyed along with those of their incarcerated parents. Over 50 percent of inmates are parents with minor children, including more than 120,000 mothers and 1.1 million fathers. One in every 28 children has a parent incarcerated, up from 1 in 125 just 25 years ago. Two-thirds of these children’s parents were incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.

For more, see my column and the rest of Reason’s “Criminal Injustice” issue.

To conclude, I would like to point Corner readers to this symposium from the July 1, 1996, issue of National Review, titled “The War on Drugs Is Lost.” Here is part of the Editors’ introductory note:

Things being as they are, and people as they are, there is no way to prevent somebody, somewhere, from concluding that “NATIONAL REVIEW favors drugs.’’ We don’t; we deplore their use; we urge the stiffest feasible sentences against anyone convicted of selling a drug to a minor. But that said, it is our judgment that the war on drugs has failed, that it is diverting intelligent energy away from how to deal with the problem of addiction, that it is wasting our resources, and that it is encouraging civil, judicial, and penal procedures associated with police states. We all agree on movement toward legalization, even though we may differ on just how far.

We are joined in our judgment by Ethan A. Nadelmann, a scholar and researcher; Kurt Schmoke, a mayor and former prosecutor; Joseph D. McNamara, a former police chief; Robert W. Sweet, a federal judge and former prosecutor; Thomas Szasz, a psychiatrist; and Steven B. Duke, a law professor. Each has his own emphases, as one might expect. All agree that the celebrated war has failed, and that it is time to go home, and to mobilize fresh thought on the drug problem in the context of a free society. This symposium is our contribution to such thought.

It is sad that 15 years later, nothing has changed and so many lives have been destroyed.

Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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