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Study Shows Long Prison Sentences Don't Dissuade Drug Users

South Dakota's incarceration rate for drug offenses is lower than most states, but opioid-related deaths are on the rise. (pixabay)
South Dakota's incarceration rate for drug offenses is lower than most states, but opioid-related deaths are on the rise. (pixabay)
March 23, 2018

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – A new, 50-state study finds that putting more people in jail for drug offenses doesn't reduce either drug use or overdose deaths.

In an effort to fight the nation's opioid epidemic, President Donald Trump is calling for harsher sentences, including the death penalty, for drug traffickers.

But Jake Horowitz, director of research and policy for the Public Safety Performance Project at The Pew Charitable Trusts, says they've compared states' drug-related incarceration rates to the rates of drug use, drug arrests and overdose deaths – and found no correlation.

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

South Dakota, for example, ranked 17th for drug imprisonment and had 7.4 overdose deaths per 100,000 – which is considered a low ratio.

Those are not the epidemic levels seen in other states, but deaths from opioids are on the rise in South Dakota. They more than doubled in seven years, from 15 deaths in 2007 to 37 in 2014.

Even if higher incarceration rates have no significant effect on drug use, Horowitz notes that stiffer prison terms do have a dramatic impact on communities.

"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 says.

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 250,000.

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed a bill into law this week that strengthens penalties related to opioids, including a mandatory prison sentence for distribution or manufacture of opioids.

Roz Brown, Public News Service - SD