A Wiser Course: Ending Drug Prohibition

Part II Continued

The Costs of Prohibition

The Prison State

One of the most tangible, measurable effects of the "war on drugs," has been the creation of a "prison state".According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's statistics, one million arrests are made annually for violations of the federal and state drug laws.

As a result of these massive numbers of arrests each year, "the United States has a higher proportion of its population incarcerated than any other country in the world for which reliable statistics are available."

Incarceration in America is now at an all-time high. From 1925 through 1973, the American prison population fluctuated between 90 and 120 people in prison per 100,000 of the population; in 1973 the rate was 98 per 100,000, a ten-year low. Between 1973 and 1980, however, there was a 40% increase, to 135 people in prison per 100,000; and by 1986, following the start of the modern "war on drugs," the incarceration rate had jumped to 200 per 100,000. In 1993, the rate of Americans serving prison time stood at 325 per 100,000. In 1993, the number of inmates in federal and state prisons in New York increased by 4.6%, to 64,600.

On average, it costs $20,000 per year to maintain one prisoner, $100,000 to build a single prison cell, and $20,000 per year to staff a prison cell.

More than one in forty American males between the ages 14 and 34 are locked up.

Between 1980 and 1990, the total prison population in the United States increased by 133% to over 771,000 prisoners. In 1993, the total prison population reached 949,000, nearly three times as many as in 1980. During the 1980s, new imprisonments on drug charges increased over 1,000%.

Drug offenders have accounted for an increasing percentage of the population in State and Federal correctional facilities. Drug offenders constituted an estimated 22% of the State prison population in 1991, up from 6% of the population in 1979. In Federal correctional facilities, drug offenders accounted for 61% of the population, up from 16% in 1970, 25% in 1980, and 52% in 1990. [38].

The vast majority of the prison population increase during the 1980s, which doubled the number of persons under custody for all charges, involved drug law violations. Due to the great increase in drug-related incarcerations, the federal and state prison systems are overwhelmed, as reported almost daily in the newspapers. Prison overcrowding persists despite an unprecedented boom in prison construction. For example, between 1983 and 1992, New York State built 29 prisons, increasing the number of prisons in the state to 68 and the inmate capacity from 29,253 to 57,862.

No one wants overcrowding. It riles inmates, strains prison guards, encourages the spread of illness and generally makes prisons more volatile places. In the past, when there was money to spend, the solution to overcrowding would have been clear---create more space. Not any more. With money scarce and a sense that more prison beds have not resulted in less crime, many lawmakers are being forced to conclude they can no longer build their way out of the problem. [41].

According to the United States Department of Justice, "drug offenders" are becoming a larger share of the prison population for two reasons: first, the likelihood that a conviction will result in incarceration is increasing; and second, those convicted on drug charges are receiving longer prison sentences.

Mandatory sentencing laws, such as the federal sentencing guidelines, exacerbate the problem by forcing judges to impose lengthy sentences for simple possession of small amounts of drugs. These laws, first passed in the 1970s but increasingly relied on as a weapon in the "drug war" in recent years, have in large measure been responsible for today's severe overcrowding. Mandatory minimum sentences require judges to impose a statutorily-defined minimum period of incarceration without the possibility of parole, with no consideration of the specific facts of the crime or any mitigating circumstances.

Faced with mandatory sentences laws, there has been a growing movement at the state level to minimize their draconian effects. In New York, for example, the courts had been cooperating with prosecutors and defense attorneys to avoid the harsh effects on second-time drug offenders. New York's Governor, Mario Cuomo, in his 1994 budget message has asked the Legislature to restore discretion to judges meting out second-time drug felony sentences "to relieve overcrowding in state prisons."

For all of the extra burden on the prison and judicial systems and on the taxpayer caused by the "war on drugs," American society has little to show for it. "If such toughness had much to do with crime, you'd think we'd have seen some results by now. But... overall crime has decreased only 6% since 1973; violent crimes are up 24%. The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences recently concluded that a tripling of time served by violent offenders since 1975 had `apparently very little' impact on violent crime."

With 61% of today's federal inmates incarcerated on drug law convictions, judiciary and corrections overcrowding and escalated costs would necessarily be reduced were the current drug policy altered toward a less punitive, more humane approach which removes the profit motive fueling the black market in illegal drugs.


A Wiser Course: Ending Drug Prohibition
A Report of The Special Committee on Drugs and the Law
of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York
June 14, 1994

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