Com156 – Prison Population of Drug Offenders

Last Updated: 11 Sep 2020
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With the United States prison population growing, did you know that almost every citizen knows at least one person that is in prison? Every day there are 200 new jail cells that are constructed in the United States (ZHENG, SALGANIK, & GELMAN, 2006). With the highest rates of incarceration than any other country prisons are full in the United States of America, and yet we continue to build more space and spend more tax dollars on building more prisons. This is an ever-growing concern amongst American citizens whose tax dollars are going into this ever building problem.

Something needs to be done to change the course of this problem before it becomes bigger than it really should be, and we do have a few options to consider. More than a quarter of our countries prison population is incarcerated for drug offenses with sentences of anywhere from 1 to 30 years (Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics, 2012). 30 years seems like a long time to spend citizen tax dollars on someone who did nothing violent towards another and was only hurting themself with the lifestyle that they chose to live.

Our prison systems could potentially be more effectively used by focusing more on incarcerating drug users based on the violent offenses they commit rather than the drug offenses. The prison population has been a topic of conversation around the world for many years now and has recently become an ever-growing concern in the United States. More than 10. 1 million people are held in penal institutions around the world, and the United States holds more than a quarter of the world’s incarcerated population. At 2. 29 million people incarcerated in the United States (Walmsley, 2011), our prisons are full.

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The only country that has even close to as many prisoners as we do is China at 1. 65 million people incarcerated (Walmsley, 2011). China’s total population is 1,354. 1 million, and the United States’ total population is 308. 4 million. China’s total population is more than four times that of the United States, and yet the United States prison population is almost one and a half times what China’s is at. This could be because of the luxuries that inmates get when incarcerated here in the United States that other countries do not provide for their inmates.

Inmates in the United States receive cable television and new release movies, music and music players, and even education; all of these are luxuries that most other countries do not offer their inmates. The luxuries that inmates in the United States receive cost taxpayer dollars to provide, the average cost per inmate is $31,286. 00 per year (Henrichson & Delaney, 2012). That is a large lump sum of money, especially considering that the average American citizen only makes $46,000. 00 or less per year.

The cost of inmates on taxpayers could be a whole topic in itself. Of the 2. 9 million people incarcerated in the United States, 337,405 of them are in State or Federal prisons for drug offenses (Drugwarfacts. org, 2011); this number does not even include those in local jails. According to the US Justice Department, 27. 9% of drug offenders in state prisons are serving time for possession, 69. 4% are serving time for trafficking offenses, and 2. 7% are in for "other. " (Drugwarfacts. org, 2011). These numbers are too high. Penalties for trafficking are higher than possession, so 69. 4% will spend more time taking up that prison space and tax dollars than the 27. 9% of possessors will.

Even at only 2. 7%, the rate for those incarcerated for “other’ types of drug offenses is too high. In local jails alone, as of a 2002 federal survey, there were 440,670 local inmates, a quarter of which (112,447) were drug offenders (Drugwarfacts. org, 2011). Of this 112,447, 11. 1% are there on possession charges, and 12. 8% for trafficking. At 112,447 people incarcerated in local jails, that is one-third of what we already have incarcerated in State and Federal prisons. These numbers keep adding up and getting higher and higher. Something needs to change in order for these numbers to start decreasing.

At 2. 29 million people incarcerated in the United States, with overpopulated prisons, we need to reconsider what crimes are worth punishing, and if paying out $31,286. 00 per inmate per year in tax dollars is really necessary. Many studies show that increased admissions to drug treatments are associated with reduced incarceration rates. According to Drugwarfacts. org (2011), “States with a higher drug treatment admission rate than the national average send, on average, 100 fewer people to prison per 100,000 in the population than states that have lower than average drug treatment admissions. (Treatment).

Of the 20 states that admit the most people to treatment per 100,000, 19 had incarceration rates below the national average. Of the 20 states that admitted the fewest people to treatment per 100,000, eight had incarceration rates above the national average. Increased admission to treatment rates also showed a decrease in the crime rate and a reduction to control costs. According to Drugwarfacts. org (2011) as well, “Admissions to drug treatment increased 37. 4 percent and federal spending on drug treatment increased 14. 6 percent from 1995 to 2005.

During the same period, violent crime fell 31. 5 percent. ” (Treatment). Also according to Drugwarfacts. org (2011), “A study by the RAND Corporation found, "the savings of treatment programs are larger than the control costs; we estimate that the costs of crime and lost productivity are reduced by $7. 46 for every dollar spent on treatment. "(Treatment). Even if we just shift what we put the tax dollars towards a little, it could have a big and beneficial impact on our economy and on our society in general. A lot can be learned from the Portuguese decriminalization of illicit drugs in 2001.

Since decriminalizing illicit drugs in Portugal the rate of drug-related deaths, as well as the number of offenders arrested in Portugal for trafficker, trafficker-consumer, and consumer offenses have all decreased. Since the decriminalization, there has been a reduction in opiate-related deaths and infectious diseases. “Most interviewees were of the view that the decriminalization had reduced the burden on the Portuguese criminal justice system and enabled police to refocus their attention on more serious offenses, namely drug traf? king-related offenses. (Hughes & Stevens, 2010, p. 1008). Evidence also indicates reductions in problematic use, drug-related harms and criminal justice overcrowding in Portugal since the decriminalization of illicit drugs. If it can help with their overcrowding prison problem than it can help with ours as well. Portugal has taken a dramatic step in its justice system, and they have seen great benefits from it, as can we.

The number of people arrested for criminal offenses related to drug offenses reduced from over 14,000 offenders in 2000 to an average of 5,000–5,500 offenders per year. (Hughes & Stevens, 2010, p. 1008). There has also been an increased uptake of drug treatment. The facts speak for themselves; the numbers are all too high, from the number of offenders incarcerated, to the amount of time that they spend for those crimes and the tax dollars that are being spent on them while they are incarcerated. Whether it is an increased requirement for drug treatment or entire decriminalization of drug offenses as in Portugal’s example, we have a few options to consider; something can be done to put a stop to this problem, and we need to start doing it.

This problem will not just go away; someone needs to take the first step towards the reform of our practices and policies. If nothing is done than the numbers will just keep increasing further; more new jail cells will continue to keep being constructed, and they will be filled with more new inmates, maybe someone that is close to you. Will you take the first step to ensure that this problem does not go any further? Let’s start standing up and confronting this problem head-on; together we can conquer anything, one problem at a time.


  1. ZHENG, T. , SALGANIK, M. J. , & GELMAN, A. 2006, June). How Many People Do You Know in Prison? : Using Overdispersion in Count Data to Estimate Social Structure in Networks. Journal of the American StatisticalAssociation,(),409-423.Retrievedfromhttp://www.stat.columbia. edu/~gelman/research/published/overdisp_final. pdf
  2. Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics. (2012). Penalties for US Drug Offenses. Retrieved from http://www. cognitiveliberty. org/dll/drugpenalties. htm
  3. Walmsley, R. (2011, July). World prison population list. International Centre for Prison Studies, Ninth Edition(), 1-6. Retrieved from http://www. cribd. com/doc/77097293/World-Prison-Population-List-9th-edition
  4. Drugwarfacts. org. (2011). Retrieved from http://www. drugwarfacts. org/cms/Prisons_and_Drugs#Research
  5. Drugwarfacts. org. (2011). Retrieved from http://www. drugwarfacts. org/cms/Treatment
  6. HUGHES, C. , & STEVENS, A. (2010). What Can We Learn From The Portuguese Decriminalization of Illicit Drugs?. British Journal Of Criminology, 50(6), 999-1022. doi:10. 1093/bjc/azq038 Christian Henrichson and Ruth Delaney, The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers.
  7. New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2012.

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