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Study Finds Stiffer Prison Terms Don’t Deter Drug Use

More than ten times as many Americans are now imprisoned for drug offenses than in 1980. (babawawa/Pixabay)
More than ten times as many Americans are now imprisoned for drug offenses than in 1980. (babawawa/Pixabay)
March 22, 2018

NEW YORK — A new, 50-state study finds that putting more people in jail for drug offenses doesn't reduce drug use or overdose deaths.

On Monday, President Donald Trump called for harsher sentences, including the death penalty for drug traffickers, to combat the opioid epidemic. Jake Horowitz, director of research and policy at Pew Charitable Trusts' Public Safety Performance Project, said they compared states' drug imprisonment rates to rates of drug use, overdose death and drug arrests, and found no correlation at all.

"These findings reinforce a large body of prior research that casts doubt on the theory that stiffer prison terms deter drug misuse, distribution and other drug law violations,” Horowitz said.

New York, for example, ranked 41st for drug imprisonment and had 11.6 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents - a relatively low ratio. But Louisiana, with the highest incarceration rate in the nation, experienced overdose deaths at a rate almost 44 percent higher than New York.

But while increased incarceration rates have no significant effect on drug use, Horowitz noted that stiffer prison terms do have a dramatic impacts on everyone else.

"Putting more drug law violators behind bars for longer periods of time has generated an enormous cost for taxpayers, but has not yielded a convincing public safety return on those investments,” he said.

Since 1980 the number of Americans in state and federal prisons for drug law violations has exploded from fewer than 25,000 to more than a quarter-million. Horowitz said Pew has polled voters nationally and found broad, bipartisan support for reducing prison penalties for drug crimes.

"In states like Maryland we note 75 percent of voters agree that imposing longer prison terms is the wrong way to break the cycle of crime and addiction,” Horowitz said. “And these kinds of findings span from Louisiana to Utah, red and blue states across the country."

He added research shows the most effective response to drug misuse includes treatment, prevention and alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - NY