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Study Shows Harsher Sentences Don’t Stop Drug Use

More than 10 times as many Americans are now imprisoned for drug offenses than in 1980. (Pixabay)
More than 10 times as many Americans are now imprisoned for drug offenses than in 1980. (Pixabay)
March 26, 2018

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

President Donald Trump has called for harsher sentences, including the death penalty, for drug traffickers to combat the opioid epidemic.

Jake Horowitz, the director of research and policy with Pew Charitable Trusts' Public Safety Performance Project, says 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," he says.

Colorado ranked 37th nationally for drug imprisonment and had 17 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents. The state ranked 40th for its drug arrests and came in first nationally for adult illicit drug use.

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

"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 explains.

Since 1980, the number of Americans in state and federal prison for drug-law violations has exploded from fewer than 25,000 to more than a quarter-of-a-million.

Horowitz says 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," he adds. "And these kinds of findings span from Louisiana to Utah, red and blue states, across the country."

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

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - CO