About those drug war prison statistics

We’ve talked a lot over the years about the impact that the drug war has had on the over-incarceration in the U.S. And inevitably someone responds by saying that there aren’t all that many in prison (or state prison, or federal prison, or those convicted of possession only, etc.) as if somehow the fact that not all prisoners were a direct result of the drug war negated the argument.

Here’s an interesting article that sheds a little more light on the subject:

Drug offenders in American prisons: The critical distinction between stock and flow

There is no disputing that incarceration for property and violent crimes is of huge importance to America’s prison population, but the standard analysis—including Alexander’s critics—fails to distinguish between the stock and flow of drug crime-related incarceration. In fact, there are two ways of looking at the prison population as it relates to drug crimes:

  1. How many people experience incarceration as a result of a drug-related crime over a certain time period?
  2. What proportion of the prison population at a particular moment in time was imprisoned for a drug-related crime? […]

Snapshot pictures of prison populations tell a misleading story

Violent crimes account for nearly half the prison population at any given time; and drug crimes only one fifth. But drug crimes account for more of the total number of admissions in recent years—almost one third (31 percent), while violent crimes account for one quarter.

Interesting data.

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17 Responses to About those drug war prison statistics

  1. primus says:

    The issue of how many are jailed is a red.herring. The more important question is how many lives have been messed up just for possession of cannabis. Every arrest causes significant damage to those arrested, and the number of family breakups which result is unknowable. The punishment is disproportionate to the “crime” even if it does not result in jail time.

  2. jean valjean says:

    American politics. Where apparently intelligent people will seriously argue that black is white, and up is actually down. We’re back in Upton Sinclair land again, folks:
    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”

  3. Kiwi says:

    “With over 5 million people on probation or parole in the United States, drug use on parole or probation has become the primary basis by which thousands of people are returned to prison. These technical violations of parole or probation account for as many as 40% of new prison admissions in some jurisdictions.” – page 6

    “The war on drugs has also generated indirect costs that many researchers contend have undermined public safety. The federal government has prioritized spending and grants for drug task forces and widespread drug interdiction efforts that often target low-level drug dealing. These highly organized and coordinated efforts have been very labor intensive for local law enforcement agencies with some unanticipated consequences for investigation of other crimes. The focus on drugs is believed to have redirected law enforcement resources that have resulted in more drunk driving, and decreased investigation and enforcement of violent crime laws. In Illinois, a 47% increase in drug arrests corresponded with a 22% decrease in arrests for drunk driving. Florida researchers have similarly linked the focus on low level drug arrests with an increase in the serious crime index.”

    –Drug Policy, Criminal Justice and Mass Imprisonment, by Bryan Stevenson

  4. claygooding says:

    They are hiding or failing to notice the massive majority of prisoners are poor and of color.

    Go to any prison and have prisoners line up that used court appointed attorneys and others on the opposite side.

    Money talks and shit walks isn’t justice.

    • Hope says:

      That would be a mighty long line on one side and a short or non existent one on the other.

      It’s the system we now have in place. The court appointed lawyers all too often are just a part of that system. They force their “Clients” on through as fast as they can. They push them through chutes and tubes that ultimately lead to the bowels of the prison system.

      It’s ugly, stupid, and unfathomably expensive.

      Do the lawyers have a choice? They look a lot like cogs in a detestable piece of machinery.

  5. Servetus says:

    The focus of the drug law reform is on imprisonment, and that’s good, but international law recognizes any formal deprivation of liberty to constitute an act of punishment in and of itself.

    Deprivation of liberty includes forced drug treatment. Arrests, trials, mindless bureaucrats enforcing their religious authority — all are traumatic incidents for the accused because law enforcement deprives them of freedom. The State needs a just reason to exercise its power of punishment.

    “No one shall be subject to arbitrary arrest or imprisonment,” according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, as noted in their training manual in Chapter 5: “HUMAN RIGHTS AND ARREST, PRE-TRIAL DETENTION AND ADMINISTRATIVE DETENTION—pdf”.

    Definition of arbitrary from Webster’s: “not restrained or limited in the exercise of power: ruling by absolute authority, an arbitrary government”; and Dictionary.com: “capricious, unreasonable, unsupported”.

    A drug arrest is as arbitrary as it gets in law enforcement.

  6. Duncan20903 says:


    Another part I find myself often pondering is the difference between prison and jail. I don’t have enough data for a comprehensive analysis. The two States (California and Virginia) of which I do have a firm grasp of their statistics both have divided systems of incarceration. In neither of those States should a reasonable person expect to find inmates in the prison system incarcerated for simple possession of any of the popular names on the governments’ naughty lists. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t anyone incarcerated for simple possession in either State, just that they’re going to be incarcerated in the jail system. Every time I see the bogus claim that no one is in prison for simple possession I wonder if the claimant is taking advantage of the prison/jail split system to promote yet another statistical lie.

    I also frequently wonder, “if we’re not putting anyone arrested for ‘drugs’ in prison, then what the heck is the problem with re-legalization?”

    Will somebody please tell me why the University of Michigan “Monitoring the Future” survey numbers are so much lower that the numbers published by the CDC YRBSS or the SAMHSA surveys? How can one Federal government sponsor 3 separate yet allegedly comprehensive surveys of the same darn questions and get 3 such wildly different sets of results? Sure, it’s mighty convenient for appeal to authority arguments depending on whether the person framing the argument needs to give his hysterical rhetoric the patina of truth or an assumption of success but how the heck do they get the people surveyed to cooperate?

    • Duncan20903 says:


      This one goes into the “well speak of the devil and in he walks” category:

      Child stalker gets more prison time for marijuana plants

      A 74-year-old sex offender who stalked an Allentown [Pennsylvania] boy received more jail time on Monday for marijuana plants found in his apartment during the stalking investigation.

      Clyde Ruppel pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. Judge William Ford sentenced Ruppel to nine to 18 months in county jail.

      Ruppel was sentenced last month to one to two years in county jail for the stalking case, followed by three years of probation, but was already eligible for parole in that case.

      A very clumsily constructed headline. I don’t believe the writer intended to say that the man got more time for cannabis than kiddie diddling. But either way he was sent to jail for his cultivation, not to prison.

    • jean valjean says:

      Another example of the black is white syndrome so popular in the closed American mind (Kevin Sabet, proprietor). “Oh, hardly anyone goes to PRISON for drug possession…. they just go to some other form of slammer/oubliette…. case closed.” Disingenuous indeed.

  7. Kiwi says:

    The judge appeared exasperated not only at having his and the court’s time wasted, but also decided to comment on the overall hypocrisy inherent in a system that’s simultaneously tough on crime and blind to the fact of widespread use.

    “If the accused had met with a responsible doctor, he would probably now have his prescription,” said Judge Chevalier. “He wouldn’t be in front of this tribunal today. The gentleman is caught up in a completely mixed up system that does not allow access to a natural medicine going back centuries, or millennia.”

    Picking up on signals sent by the Liberal government, which intends to legalize marijuana and tax the proceeds, Judge Chevalier continued, “And I think that society is becoming less naive on this subject, or at least the politicians are. We’ve got one now with a responsible attitude who isn’t afraid to go in that direction,” presumably referring to Prime Minister Trudeau.

    “We have been stagnating in Canada, because politically people probably weren’t ready for the laws to evolve on this,” added Chevalier. “Irresponsible politicians have simply let these things rot because they thought it would lose them votes.”


    • Windy says:

      More like the politicians in every country have IGNORED the changing attitudes of the public, until it no longer possible to ignore.

  8. DdC says:

    Call To Action Help Protect Marijuana Reform In Southern Oregon
    Even if you do not live in Ashland, please join us to take a stand for our rights as patients, growers, & property owners!!

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