Prisons Are Overflowing With Drug Offenders, but the Drugs Are Better and Cheaper Than Ever

New research shows the massive federal-prison drug-offender population hasn’t made us safer.
El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma, visited by President Obama in July. (Photo: Saul Loeb/Getty Images)
Aug 30, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

New data shows drug policy isn’t doing what it’s meant to. The war on drugs drastically altered the face of the federal prison system, but it hasn’t made anyone safer or meaningfully decreased the availability of drugs. That’s just one of the findings of a new report from The Pew Charitable Trusts, which examines the drastic rise in the number of people being sent to prison for drug offenses in the 1980s and 1990s.

While in 1980 there were fewer than 5,000 people serving time in federal prison for drug-related offenses, today there are more than 95,000—and the data shows it’s not because we’ve gotten better at keeping drugs off the streets.

Violent crime rose 41 percent between 1983 and 1991, Pew found, and peaked at 758 violent offenses per 100,000 U.S. residents. Anecdotal evidence tied that heightened violence to the illegal drug trade, particularly crack cocaine, which encouraged legislators to make it clear to their constituents that they were tough on crime by ramping up sentences for drug offenders. The average prison sentence for a federal drug offender rose 36 percent between 1980 and 2011, tacking almost 20 additional months onto the average sentence.

But putting more drug offenders behind bars for longer periods of time hasn’t paid off, according to Pew. The street prices of illegal drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine have actually gone down since 1980—even as their purity has increased. That indicates ample supply, and indeed, the Office of National Drug Control Policy says illicit drug use has increased. (The availability of drugs may be tied to the fact that high-level drug traffickers make up a small portion of all drug offenders in federal custody—just 11 percent, according to Pew.)

While violent and property crimes have decreased dramatically over the past three decades, research shows that high incarceration rates can’t be credited for that drop. Approximately 5 percent of the crime decline in the 1990s can be attributed to incarceration, while less than 1 percent of the decline between 2000 and 2013 can be linked to incarceration, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. As Pew notes, recidivism rates among federal drug offenders barely changed as more were locked up—another indication that the war on drugs didn’t deliver on its public safety promises.

Meanwhile, the long sentences have landed especially hard on street-level dealers, as well as drug mules and couriers, who made up nearly half of the people sentenced for federal drug crimes in 2009. These pawns in the drug trade typically come from low-income communities from which manufacturing jobs have fled for China and Mexico in the last couple of decades, and where recreational opportunities are few.

President Obama recently commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent federal drug offenders, a symbolic gesture that placed attention, for the moment at least, on the huge number of similar (disproportionately nonwhite) prisoners. Sentencing reform has gained growing bipartisan support, particularly for prisoners like those 46, as data continues to shed light on how current policy punishes poor communities while failing to produce the desired results.