The United States is imprisoning drug offenders at an alarming rate. The number of people serving time in American prisons and jails for nonviolent drug crimes (458,131) is almost equal to the total number of Americans who were behind bars in 1980 (474,368), according to a recent study by the Justice Policy Institute.
Today, nearly one out of four American prisoners is serving time for a nonviolent drug crime. Politicians say we need to build prisons to reduce violent crime. But for the last decade, the number of people entering state prisons for drug offenses has surpassed the number entering for violent crimes.
During that time, the number of people entering prison for a violent crime doubled, but the number of people entering prison for nonviolent crimes tripled. The number imprisoned for drug offenses increased elevenfold.
The costs of incarcerating so many drug prisoners are both morally and financially steep. First, these incarceration policies discriminate against minorities. Even though surveys continue to show similar drug-use rates for whites and blacks, our analysis found that from 1986 to 1996, the number of white youth imprisoned for drug offenses doubled, while the number of black youth imprisoned for the same reasons increased six times.
By choosing to use prison as our principal solution for drug addiction, we have created a situation where at least one in three young black men is under some form of criminal justice control (prison, jail, parole or probation).
The war on drugs is expensive, too. Our study estimates that this country spends $9 billion incarcerating drug offenders each year. Sending the same people to outpatient drug-treatment programs would cost a third as much. According to research by the Rand Corp., spending money to provide treatment for heavy cocaine users would reduce drug consumption by nearly four times as much as spending the same amount on law enforcement.
Americans have the right to be safe from violent criminals. But we should demand that our government pursue fiscally prudent and humane policies to limit drug addiction. Locking up nonviolent drug offenders is no solution.
Jason Ziedenberg is a policy analyst with the Justice Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.