A new study released by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, D.C., provides further support to the growing consensus of evidence which shows that tougher criminal sentences for drug-related crimes do not lead to a reduction in drug crimes. In fact, they show that the rate of imprisonment for drug-related crimes in each state has no relation to various drug use indicators, such as the number of overdose deaths. The research, therefore, suggests that imprisoning drug offenders does nothing to reduce the rate of those dying from or abusing drugs within a state.
The Pew Center also points out that the rate of incarceration over the past decade for drug-related crimes has been steadily increasing. They cite that the United States currently imprisons around 300,000 people for drug-law violations, and “these offenders serve more time than in the past: those who left state prison in 2009 had been behind bars an average of 2.2 years, a 36 percent increase over 1990; prison terms for federal drug offenders jumped 153 percent between 1988 and 2012, from about two to five years.”
While there are more people in prison for drug related offenses every year, the misuse of opioids continues to rise rapidly, leading to the term “opioid epidemic.” The Center for Disease Control estimates that 33,000 Americans died from an opioid-related overdose in 2015, mostly from the misuse of prescription drugs.
Reducing Drug Use
Although the study did not find a correlation between tougher sentences for drug crimes and reduced crime rates, Pew did find some associations regarding rates of imprisonment for drug crimes. They found, for example, that states with higher rates of citizens with bachelor degrees had lower rates of imprisonment for a drug crime, and that areas with higher rates of unemployment had higher imprisonment rates.
The Pew Center points out that “One of the primary reasons for sentencing an offender to prison is deterrence—conveying the message that the cost of losing one's freedom is not worth whatever one gains from committing a crime.” The results of their study, however, show that harsher penalties for drug crimes, such as imprisonment or longer sentences, do not effectively deter drug crime.
The center concludes their report by advising a consideration of alternatives to imprisonment to address the opioid epidemic and abuse of drugs across the country: “What research does make clear is that some ways of reducing drug use and crime are more effective than others—and that imprisonment ranks near the bottom of the list. Putting more drug offenders behind bars—for longer periods of time—has not yielded a convincing public safety return. What it has generated, without doubt, is an enormous cost for taxpayers.”