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January 8, 2018

"Mass Incarceration and the War on Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Scott Cunningham and Sam Kang that a helpful colleague sent my way.  Here is its abstract:

US incarceration rates quintupled from the early 1970s to the present, leading to the US becoming the most incarcerated OECD country in the world.  A driving cause behind this growth was a nationwide shift to more punitive criminal justice policy, particularly with respect to drug related crimes.  This movement has since been characterized as the "war on drugs."  In this manuscript, we investigate the impact of rising incarceration rates on drug use and drug markets by exploiting a natural experiment in the Texas penitentiary system. In 1993, Texas made massive investments into its prison infrastructure which led to an over doubling of the state's prison capacity.  The effect was that Texas's incarceration rates more than doubled, due in large part to declining paroles. 

We use this event to study the effect that mass incarceration had on drug markets. We find no effect on drug arrests, drug prices or drug purity.  We also find no effect on self-referred cocaine or heroin treatment admissions.  However, we do find large negative effects on criminal justice referrals into treatment for cocaine and heroin, suggesting that mass incarceration reduces drug use in the population.  Furthermore, our results indicate that this decline is driven by incapacitation effects as opposed to deterrence effects.

January 8, 2018 at 04:24 PM | Permalink


Incapacitation is the sole mature goal of the criminal law. YOu heard that here, many years ago.

Posted by: David Behar | Jan 8, 2018 4:38:56 PM

What about the theory that drug dealers are replaced?

Posted by: Dan Jay | Jan 9, 2018 4:22:33 AM

Joseph Margulies has a challenging essay this week that includes comments on the war on drugs. https://verdict.justia.com/2018/01/08/resolution-2018-less-piety-complexity

Posted by: Joe | Jan 9, 2018 10:20:19 AM

Thanks, Joe. That is a good piece that I hope to find time to blog about.

Posted by: Doug B | Jan 9, 2018 8:16:50 PM

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