Does Imprisoning Drug Offenders Impact Drug Use?

By Britni de la Cretaz 06/23/17

A new Pew study investigated whether there was a link between criminal justice consequences and drug use.

A police officer arresting a man.

A letter submitted by Pew Charitable Trusts to the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis outlines the results of an analysis of all publicly available data on arrests and imprisonment, and their impact on drug addiction. The analysis compared publicly available data on illicit drug use, overdose rates, and arrests from all 50 states from law enforcement, corrections, and healthcare agencies.

The theory behind the research, according to Adam Gelb, director of Pew's public safety performance project, was that if criminal justice consequences were effective, the states with the highest incarceration rates would have lower rates of drug use. However, that's not what the study found.

Massachusetts had the lowest incarceration rate but one of the highest overdose rates. Colorado had the highest rate of drug use but was 37th in incarcerations. What the results showed was that locking people up had no statistically significant effect on drug use. Not only that, the research showed that reductions in prison terms for federal drug offenders haven’t led to higher recidivism rates. 

“The absence of any relationship between state rates of drug imprisonment and drug problems suggests that expanding drug imprisonment is not likely to be an effective national drug control and prevention strategy,” reads the Pew letter. And while this has been the rallying cry of medical professionals and criminal justice reform advocates for a long time (“You can’t arrest your way out of a public health crisis” is an oft-heard statement and the theory behind programs like those supported by the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative), it is at odds with the new administration’s view on how to handle the country's drug problems.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has reinstated mandatory minimums and wants to incarcerate more low-level drug offenders, encouraging states to pursue the harshest punishment possible for drug crimes. "It is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense," Sessions wrote in the memo he issued to the Department of Justice in May, urging prosecutors to walk back Obama-era attitudes about drug crimes.

"There seems to be this assumption that tougher penalties will send a stronger message and deter people from involvement with drugs. This is not borne out by the data," Gelb told NBC News. "This is fresh data that should inform the important conversation happening in Washington and around the country about what the most effective strategies are for combatting the rise in opioid addiction and other substance abuse.”

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.