How many people are put in prison for non-violent drug crimes? That is a question often asked by policymakers, but the answer varies wildly. The majority of drug arrests are processed at the city level, with city district attorneys prosecuting cases. Those who are convicted of felony drug offenses are sent to state prisons. Interestingly, the vast majority of violent crimes are not related to drug use or trafficking. In fact, homicides are far more likely to be the result of robberies and interpersonal disputes.
In the U.S., about one in five people behind bars are incarcerated for drug offenses. Yet these people have not been convicted of any violent crime. While most of these people are jailed for non-violent drug offenses, a large number of them are incarcerated for minor offenses like possession of marijuana and possession of crack cocaine. In addition to the number of jailed individuals, it is important to note that prisoners convicted of crimes like robbery are more likely to be rearrested for other crimes as well.
While the majority of prisoners were intoxicated on drugs thirty days prior to their arrest, the numbers of people incarcerated for drug offenses are still disturbing. Some nonviolent drug offenders are also addicts and, as a result, may receive lighter punishments or more prison services. While incarcerating these individuals may make sense for them, the fact remains that a large percentage of them are in the drug business for money, not for any other reason.
This dichotomy between violent and non-violent crimes mirrors a common approach to criminal justice reform. In the late 2000s, reformers began focusing on reforms that target a group of politically safe people known as “non-violent drug offenders.” President Barack Obama’s First Step Act is an example of this approach, and its bipartisan supporters say it’s the right way to go.
The problem of state prison populations is an ongoing one, and reducing these numbers can only be achieved by focusing on the most dangerous offenders. A more effective approach is to focus on non-violent drug offenders. Often, these individuals aren’t addicted to the substances and aren’t even violent, so incarcerating them for drug offenses is unlikely to save the country from mass incarceration. Moreover, these individuals are not necessarily the ones in need of drug treatment.
The problem with these statistics is that violent offenders account for the majority of state prisoners. The number of federal prison inmates is so high that the numbers are even higher. While a quarter of all state prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes, nearly half are for violent offenses. While a third of these inmates are white, the proportion of black and Hispanic federal prisoners is even higher.
Reform of the criminal justice system is bipartisan, with conservatives arguing that reform will cut government spending. The White House Council of Economic Advisers recently studied the fiscal cost of incarceration. The numbers of prisoners behind bars declined a bit from 2009 to 2010, indicating that the criminal justice system is changing. The SSA’s Matthew Epperson and Robert Fairbanks discuss the trends of the prison population and the Sheridan Correctional Center.