Straight-Edge States Cash in On Softer Drug Laws

By Tony O'Neill 08/10/11

Looser drug laws in the nation's most conservative states have been a huge success—cutting crime and saving millions.

Texas Justice Ain't What it Used to Be Photo via

States like Texas and Mississippi have traditionally been tough on drug offenders. But an illuminating report released yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reveals that some bipartisan reforms in traditionally “tough on crime” states have been a resounding success,  leading to reduced incarceration rates, billions of tax dollars saved, and lower crime rates. Drug laws are a particular focus of the report, which notes that US annually imprisons many more drug offenders than other Western nations. Some familiar-sounding but startling figures: one in 99 US residents lives behind bars. And while whites make up the country’s majority—and commit crimes at a comparable rate to other ethnicities—60% of US prisoners are people of color. The report highlights six states—Texas, Mississippi, Kansas, South Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio—that have successfully enacted bipartisan reforms that promote alternatives to prison for non-violent drug offenders. Vanita Gupta, Deputy Legal Director of ACLU, says the reforms show "there are ways to create more rational and effective criminal justice systems that better protect our communities." In Kansas, for example, new laws that mandated drug treatment instead of incarceration for non-violent drug offenses led to an 18% drop in crime rates in the six years between 2003 and 2009. In Texas, state-wide reforms including probation instead of prison for low-level possession arrests—and investment in drug treatment programs for people on parole and in prison—lead to the biggest drop in the state’s crime rate since 1973, along with savings of over $2 billion. It's heartening news to those of us who see drug addiction as a medical—rather than criminal—issue. Inimai Chettiar, ACLU's Advocacy and Policy Counsel, summarized: “These reforms have always made economic sense. The costs of using incarceration as an option of first—rather than last—resort far outweighs any benefit to public safety... The rest of the country should follow suit.”

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Tony O'Neill, a regular contributor to The Fix, is the author of several novels, including Digging the VeinDown and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. You can follow Tony on Twitter.