The War On Drugs: Effect On The Prison Population

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The War On Drugs: Effect On The Prison Population

In the early 1970’s, President Nixon began the war on drugs. Throughout the 1980’s, President Reagan continued to support and strengthen the cause. In the past 40 years, the population of state and federal prisons increased from 218,466 in 1974, to 1,508,636 in 2014. That’s an increase of almost 600%. To compare, the U.S. population only increased by 51% in the during the same time.

These statistics originated from the Sentencing Project, an organization which advocates for criminal justice reform. The Project states that the current prison population is 2.2 million, which also includes jails.

But can we really blame the war on drugs? After all, people are also being incarcerated for plenty of other offenses.

The fact is, the prison population remained relatively stable in the early 1970’s before Nixon’s war on drugs ensued. Every year since, from the Reagan years all the way up to 2010, there have been significant increases in the incarcerated population.

Still, it’s difficult to gauge how much of an impact new drug laws had on these numbers. But there’s no question that the establishment of the Drug Enforcement Agency – as well as the creation of minimum drug crime sentences – had something to do with it.

For example, according to the Sentencing Report, in 1980, 41,000 persons were locked up for drug crimes. By 2014, that number was around 488,400 – a staggering increase of 1,000%.

Conversely, others point to violent offenders being responsible for prison population growth. But violent crime is also intricately connected to the war on drugs, as well. For example, if drug enforcement policies cause the price of drugs to increase, there will be more people engaging in illicit activities in effort to feed their habit. And wherever black markets flourish, violence and murder follow.

The Socioeconomic Effect

It’s a well-known fact that minorities are over-represented in prisons – in 2013, about 58% of all inmates were either black or hispanic. But these two group collectively only represent about 30% of the overall population

Research has also found that black people are more likely to be arrested for the same charges as white people. They are receive, on average, higher charges and longer sentences.

According to a 2014 article by Jonathan Rothwell of Gallup, white people are more likely to sell drugs than blacks, and equally likely to use them. Despite this fact, blacks are 3.6 times more likely than whites to be apprehended for selling drugs.

As far as how lower income persons are represented in the incarcerated population, in 2004, the Prison Policy Initiative analyzed a survey about prisoner’s income levels before their arrest. It was found that the prison population had an average income of $19,185 before incarceration. That is 41% less than non-incarcerated persons of the same age.


It’s fairly clear that locking people up for non-violent drug offenses has contributed to prison overpopulation in a number of ways – – but to what extent, we may never know.

~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology

Just Believe Recovery is a fully licensed, Joint Commission accredited, comprehensive drug and alcohol treatment center located in Carbondale, Pennsylvania

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