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Study: Jail Time Doesn't Discourage Drug Use

Tennessee ranks among the highest in the country for drug imprisonment. (Matthias Muller/flickr)
Tennessee ranks among the highest in the country for drug imprisonment. (Matthias Muller/flickr)
March 26, 2018

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – 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.

Tennessee ranks fifth in the country when it comes to drug imprisonment. By comparison, the Volunteer State imprisons drug offenders at a much higher rate than New Jersey, but the states' drug use rates are roughly the same, according to the report.

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.

Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - TN