Rethinking the Mass Incarceration of Drug Offenders

The United States, not unlike many other countries, faces an ongoing problem with the use and sale of illegal drugs. In response to rising crime rates and drug usage in the 1980s and 1990s, the federal government rapidly increased the sentences for drug offenses. This resulted in a system of mass incarceration unrivaled in the developed world. Today, we have a prison system where nearly half of all federal prisoners are serving time for drug offenses (FAMM 1). Despite the nation’s efforts to combat drugs, we have overwhelmingly failed through a punitive approach.

Rather than imprison low-level, non-violent, drug offenders, we should instead offer drug treatment and counseling to the large proportion of those suffering from addiction, a medical condition. From a criminal justice perspective, incarcerating low-level drug users does not protect public safety, nor does it reduce the offenders’ chances of abusing drugs again. To be more effective in combating drug crimes, as well as more economical, low-level drug offenders should not go to prison; rather, they should partake in court-ordered drug treatment programs to address and cure their physical drug addiction.

To evaluate if punitive drug sentences are an effective criminal justice method, it is first important to understand how prison is designed to function in the criminal justice system. The Federal Department of Corrections states that it’s mission is to,, “protect society by confining offenders in the controlled environments of prisons and community-based facilities…that provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens.” (Federal Burea of Prisons 1). The state of Ohio’s Department of Corrections, one of the nation’s largest state prison systems, is more succinct in its goals: its vision and mission are simply to “reduce crime in Ohio” and “reduce recidivism among those we touch” (Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction 1). To that end, imprisoning drug offenders is supposed to deter them from further drug use, while keeping criminals off the streets. However, imprisoning non-violent, or “low-level” drug offenders–who are the majority of those in prison for drug offenses–accomplishes neither of these criminal justice goals. (The Sentencing Project 1.)

Specifically, in thinking about reducing recidivism, research has shown that prison sentences will not reduce drug use. According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, approximately 95% of offenders return to drug abuse after being released from prison (NADCP 1). This is because drug abuse is a distinctly different kind of crime than most others that result in prison sentences. According to current medical knowledge, drug addiction is a brain disease, interfering with, “an individual’s ability to make voluntary decisions, leading to compulsive drug craving, seeking, and use” (National Institute on Drug Abuse 1).To imprison drug offenders assumes a majorly incorrect premise: that they have some degree of rational control over their crime.

People addicted to drugs will not respond to prison as a deterrent to reoffending because they are not weighing the consequences of their decisions as healthy people do. Researcher Valerie Wright makes this argument, stating that those who are under the influence of drugs and alcohol are unlikely to be, “..deterred by either the certainty or severity of punishment because of their temporarily impaired capacity to consider the pros and cons of their actions.” (Wright 2).Prison then becomes a revolving door for people suffering from drug addiction, as we fail to treat the underlying cause of the crime. It is estimated that,“60-80% of drug abusers commit a new crime (typically a drug-driven crime) after release from prison (Doug, Schiraldi, and Zeidenberg 9). Thus the prison system cannot reduce recidivism among drug offenders as it is designed to for other types of criminals.

In relation to the other primary goal of the prison system- securing public safety- many low-level drug offenders do not actually pose a significant danger to the public. According to the Sentencing Project, nearly 72.1% of federal prisoners serving time for drug offenses are non-violent offenders with no history of violence (The Sentencing Project 1). A genuine concern for public safety in our country seems misguided, seeing as how there are more people incarcerated for drug crimes than for crimes related to weapons, explosives, and arson (Malveaux 1). Research indicates that resources spent on drug offenders would be better spent on keeping violent criminals off the street.

David B. Kopel, the former assistant attorney general for the state of Colorado and now a research director and policy analyst, argues that drug sentencing may actually lead to more violent criminals being free, thus negatively impacting public safety. Specifically, he claims that “the mandatory drug minimums have led to reduced punishment for violent crime”, as parole standards have been lowered to accommodate for a dramatic increase in inmate population (Kopel 6). In this way, drug sentencing may actually be hindering public safety, rather than protecting it, as the criminal justice system strives to do. The American public, whose safety is in question, agrees that criminal justice priorities are in the wrong place. The Pew Center on the States reports that 62% of Americans strongly favor sending fewer low-risk, non-violent offenders to prison in order to keep violent criminals in prison for their full sentence (FAMM 1).

Given the unique nature of drug abuse, and the inadequacies of the prison system in combating it, we should provide treatment and other services to drug offenders in lieu of incarceration. Drug treatment programs, as part of a larger effort of the alternative sentencing regime, have been shown to reduce substance abuse and recidivism among drug offenders. In a report called “Treatment or Incarceration?” released by the Justice Policy Institute, researchers Mcvay, Schiraldi, and Ziedenberg show that drug treatment programs, combined with education and life skills training, have been more effective than incarceration at curbing drug abuse (McVay, Schiraldi, and Ziedenberg (3).

The researchers specifically note the success of treatment programs like “Break the Cycle”, a probation program focusing on drug treatment, testing, and sanctions. Offenders who participated in Break the Cycle were less likely to be arrested during the first six months of supervision (11). The University of Maryland determined that Break the Cycle successfully reduced substance abuse and re-arrest rates for participants (11). Mcvay, Schiraldi, and Ziedenberg attribute these positive outcomes to drug treatment, and they highlight the fact that similar other programs exist around the country.

Importantly, implementing alternative sentencing programs is not the same as decriminalizing drugs. Treatment should be both court-mandated and court-monitored. One program, commonly referred to as Drug Court, requires the offender to actually plead guilty to an offense before entering the program (NADCP 1). The approach is still entirely within a criminal justice framework. In fact, drug treatment programs actually require an element of judicial supervision in order to be successful. According to the NADCP, 60 to 80% of offenders drop out of treatment prematurely unless they are regularly supervised by a judge (NADCP 1). Since the prison system fails to adequately rehabilitate drug abusers, it is crucial to shift state resources and attention from the penal system to the judicial system in treating offenders.

Drug treatment also provides cost-saving benefits, proving to be more economically sustainable and thus preferable for the criminal justice system. Even a residential drug treatment program can cost half as much as the average term of imprisonment (McVay, Schiraldi and Zeidenberg 5). The Sentencing Project Report highlights the “abundance of research indicating the cost-effectiveness of treatment for drug abuse rather than incarceration” (Sentencing Project 3). In our country today, overpopulation threatens to seriously undermine our prison system. There have already been bipartisan calls to reduce the size of the prison system, as it has wreaked havoc on the budgets and resources of many states, with California being one notable example. In light of the rising cost of incarceration, it becomes even more important to release non-violent drug abusers who could be better helped through alternative programs. The cost saving benefits also negate any argument suggesting that drug treatment should occur within the prison itself. It is cheaper, and equally advantageous, to treat offenders without further inflating the population of the penal system.

It would be impossible to mention the mass incarceration of drug offenders without mentioning the disparate racial effects that have plagued this phenomenon from the beginning. Racial injustice illuminates yet another reason that the current system of mass incarceration fails to work. According to the NAACP, there are 5 times as many white drug users as black drug users, yet blacks are sent to prison for drug offenses at 5 times the rate of whites (NAACP 1). Tracing the racial inequalities in drug sentencing is complex, tracing back to major discrepancies between crack/powder cocaine laws, but the effect has been the mass incarceration of mostly people of color. African Americans now serve as much time in prison for drug offenses as whites do for violent offenses (The Sentencing Project 2). While imprisoning drug offenders is a flawed criminal justice approach on it’s own, it certainly fails even more if it targets certain groups of people disproportionately.

Going to prison brings about a lifetime of collateral consequences, including job discrimination and housing discrimination. These effects are currently disproportionately felt in Black and Latino communities, where entire generations of men have been sent to prison since the 1980s. The injustices of the past years of the War on Drugs have never been more apparent, and the call to repeal overly punitive drug laws has never been stronger. Sentencing reform is coming, with mandatory minimums being repealed in many states, and federal laws being revised to reduce racial disparities (Kopel 7). President Obama has also made it a point of his presidency to offer clemency to non-violent drug offenders who are serving life sentences, or sentences of many decades. To avoid repeating these criminal justice missteps as we move forward, we must abandon the approach of incarcerating low level drug offenders entirely . Treatment would allow drug addicts to move on from their criminal offense, without the stigma of having been in jail, and the lasting loss of opportunity that comes along with it.

In order to address the prison system’s ongoing failure to rehabilitate drug abusers, the nation must begin to look toward treatment as the primary focus. Notably, the United States is alone as a developed country in its pursuit to incarcerate those suffering from drug addiction. The success of court-mandated drug treatment programs across the country should inspire a movement towards that approach. As much as drug use is a crime in and of itself, there are few public safety goals to be achieved by imprisoning addicts. If we are to recognize that drug addiction is a disease, and not a behavior to be futilely punished through imprisonment, then it becomes clear that incarceration is not the solution for drug abusers.

Works Cited

“Drugs and Crime in America.” National Association of Drug Court Professionals.  <;

“BOP: Agency Pillars.”  Federal Bureau of Prisons. Web. 17 Oct. 2015. <>

“The Federal Prison Population: A Statistical Analysis.” The Sentencing Project. The Sentencing Project. Web. <>

Kopel, David B. “Prison Blues: How America’s Foolish Sentencing Policies Endanger Public Safety.” Cato Institute Policy Analysis. Cato Institute, 17 May 1994. Web. <>

Malveaux, Julianne. “Release Low-Level, Non-Violent Drug Offenders.” North Dallas Gazette. North Dallas Ga, 22 July 2015. Web. 17 Oct. 2015. <>

McVay, Doug, Vincent Schiraldi, and Jason Ziedenberg. “Treatment or Incarceration? National and State Findings on the Efficacy and Cost Savings of Drug Treatment Versus Imprisonment.” (2004): n. pag. Justice Policy Institute, Jan. 2004. Web. <>

“Medical Consequences of Drug Abuse.” Medical Consequences of Drug Abuse. National Institute on Drug Abuse, 14 Dec. 2012. Web. 17 Oct. 2015. <>

“2015 Annual Report.”Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. <>

“Quick Facts.” Families Against Mandatory Minimums. FAMM. Web. 17 Oct. 2015. <>

“Criminal Justice Fact Sheet.” National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. NAACP. <>


One thought on “Rethinking the Mass Incarceration of Drug Offenders

  1. I completely agree with the fact you bring up about how the statements of prisons purpose doesn’t seem to be what they are implementing in imprisoning low level drug offenders. As we have seen in so many tv shows, movies, and news stories, you could the tale off a snake, and another will keep growing back. While the low level drug offenders should be dealt with in SOME way, i think that the current way is archaic, and has indeed led us to having more people in prison than China! Instead, we should HELP this low level offenders, set them on the right path, and use our money, energy, and resources on the head of the snake so to speak, to end drugs in the U.S., because getting the low level guy literally does nothing, but raise our prison budgets and debts. I think it is outrageous that the state of Ohio thinks that putting the people that are pushing drugs to feed themselves or their families in jail is going to ‘reduce crime’. They should HELP these people to recover from their mistakes, and to start on a new journey, I mean why as Americans do we even want people sitting in jail leaving their children behind, or completely ruining their own future opportunity to get a job, when instead we could help to turn them around, employ people with psychology degrees who have no job, and make our country better in this small way?


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