Prison Country: Prisons, Drugs, and a Way Forward

prison country

It’s an easy thing to be tough on crime in American politics. “Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time”, “Three-strikes-and-you’re-out”, and other phrases captured the spirit of the time on crime in America, especially in the 1990s. They were not idle words.

An Individual’s Crime, An American Sin

From 1980 to 2013, America’s prison population had tripled, reports The Economist Magazine.[1] You may read this and wonder, what does that mean? It means that the United States, which presently has about 5% of the world’s population, has 25% of the world’s official prison population. A little less than 1% of Americans are imprisoned at any given time. The US has an incarceration rate so high that multiple newspapers have reported problems, including basic questions about how the prison system will care for inmates with Alzheimer’s.[2] More troubling, perhaps, is a substantial for-profit prison system that has evolved to accommodate an escalating political demand for prisons.

An astute reader may ask further, isn’t this old news? It is, but the past is ever with us and The Economist, The Guardian, The New York Times, and others continue to report on the issue because it is not going away and might actually be getting worse. There wonderful piece in The Economist book review on the politics of wrongful convictions and what it’s like inside private prisons in America today.[3] The Guardian also published a riveting excerpt about how prisons in America are effectively being used as alternatives to hospitalization for the mentally ill.[4] The Article notes that:

“The racial inequity of the criminal justice system has been widely noted: it is estimated that one out of every three African American men and one of every six Hispanic men born in 2001 will be arrested in their lifetimes.

But for Americans with serious mental illness, it is estimated that as many as one in two will be arrested at some point in their lives. It’s not just arrests. One in four of the nearly 1,000 fatal police shootings in 2016 involved a person with mental illness, according to a study by the Washington Post. The Post estimated that mental illness was a factor in a quarter of fatal police shootings in 2017, too.”

 Drugs, African Americans, and Modern Incarceration

Perhaps one of the best books on the War on Drugs and race is The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.[5] Alexander’s argument is essentially that The War on Drugs and Tough on Crime policies devastated African American communities. To put this claim in perspective, African Americans represent roughly 40% of the US prison population and are incarcerated at a rate nearly six times greater than non-Hispanic Whites.[6] This is despite the fact that African Americans are 13% of the total population, according to the 2010 Census.[7]

There are two claims that we will examine by Alexander: that the War on Drugs has dramatically expanded the prison population and that the War on Drugs has disproportionately impacted African Americans.

A report by the Brookings Institute shows that drug offenses constitutes the majority of all incarcerations in U.S. prisons. These can be seen with Federal data in Graph 1, although Drug Crime Admissions were declining in the late 2000s. It should be noted while going through these statistics that there is very little in the way of transparency. These Brookings numbers were published in 2015 but are using 1990s and 2000s data.

Graph 1: State & Federal Prison Incarcerations by Offense Type, 1993-2009

Courtesy the Brookings Institute

Having established that most admissions are for drug offenses, why is there any debate? A consequence of lack of transparency is that most people were looking at the left-hand part of the Graph 2. Some experts concluded that since drug offenses comprised only 20% of the prison population at a given time, that the War on Drugs was not an overwhelmingly significant source of incarcerated persons. This is clearly false when one considers the rate at which non-violent drug offenders are processed by the criminal justice system—there are fewer of them in prison at a given time because their sentences are shorter.


Graph 2: Percent of Current Inmates by Type of Offense: Stock vs. Flow, 2013 and 2011

Courtesy, The Brookings Institute

The second part of the claim is also easy to validate. Using Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) figures, we can clearly see that African Americans are incarcerated at much higher rates than any other racial group. Incidentally, these figures are much higher for Africans Americans aged 18-19 than their peers in other racial groups—11 times as high.[8] It is entirely possible that the decrease in African American incarceration could be attributed to more lenient enforcement and sentencing for minor drug offenses, of which young African American men are hit disproportionately hard.

Graph 3: Prison Admission Rates by Race, 2006-2016

Courtesy the Bureau of Justice Statistics

Do Drugs Cause (Violent/Property Related) Crime?

Now that we have talked about some of the biases of the criminal justice system, we ought to ask ourselves: why might drugs cause crime and do they actually cause crime?


We start with the first question because theory better informs facts. In the field of criminology, (spoiler) it is well known that many types of illicit activities are correlated with each other. There are basically two models for thinking about causality: (1) persons who abuse drugs are likely to engage in other crimes to fuel a habit that is costly and (2) the type of person who would abuse drugs will also engage in other crimes because they cannot control themselves.

There is no real consensus as to whether drug abuse causes (non-drug related) crime. The problem is that both theories presented above could be true simultaneously—drugs could be a motivating factor in some crimes but inherent personality traits could be in other crimes. One study suggests that different types of drugs are associated with different crime types: abusers of benzodiazepines and methamphetamines being more likely to commit opportunistic property crime and abusers of alcohol and heroin being more likely to commit violent crimes.[9] In either case, acting under the influence of drugs was noted in over 70% of property and violent crime cases. To top it off, a meta-study found that drug abusers were three to four times more likely to offend than non-drug users.[10]

Conclusions—A Definite Case for Sobriety

Whatever your feelings are on the War on Drugs or substance abuse generally, it is pretty clear that there is a strong case for giving drugs a wide berth in our society. They are strongly associated with large numbers of serious criminal offences even outside the realm of possession. Regardless of causality, if you know or suspect that a friend or loved one is abusing, you should try to intervene as quickly as possible before the situation escalates. The American Criminal Justice System is both massive and often pitiless in the administration of the law, saying nothing of the stigma attached to individuals after release. Should preventative measures fail, your best recourse is to find some sort of alternative sentencing and try to manage your loved one’s dependence.











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