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February 15, 2022

New Pew report spotlights "Drug Arrests Stayed High Even as Imprisonment Fell From 2009 to 2019"

Drug arrests Fig-1The quoted part of the title of this post is the title of this awesome new "issue brief" from the folks at Pew.  The full document merits close and repeated review, because there are stories both good and bad about this effective (pre-pandemic) accounting of the war on drugs. Here is part of the overview:

Fifty years ago, President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy No. 1,” and Congress passed legislation that sought to expand treatment and research. However, at the same time, intensified enforcement launched what became known as the “War on Drugs.” The harsher penalties led to a 1,216% increase in the state prison population for drug offenses, from 19,000 to 250,000 between 1980 and 2008.  And although prison populations have since declined, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses remains substantially larger than in 1980 — more than 171,000 in 2019 — and drug misuse and its harms have continued to grow.  Prior research has found that no relationship exists between state drug imprisonment rates and drug use or drug overdose deaths and that, from 2009 to 2019, past-year illicit drug use among Americans 12 or older increased from 15% to nearly 21% and the overdose death rate more than tripled.

To better identify and understand recent changes in and effects of the use of the criminal legal system to address drug problems, The Pew Charitable Trusts analyzed publicly available national data on drug arrests and imprisonment, drug treatment, and harm from drug misuse from 2009 through 2019 — the most recent decade for which data is available. The study found divergent enforcement trends—high rates of arrest but substantially reduced incarceration — coupled with a lack of treatment options and high mortality rates among people with illicit drug dependence.

  • Drug possession arrests held steady at more than a million a year, in stark contrast with a large reduction in overall arrests, which dropped 29%.

  • Only 1 in 13 people who were arrested and had a drug dependency received treatment while in jail or prison.

  • Racial disparities in drug enforcement declined. Arrests of Black people for drug offenses fell by 37%, more than three times the drop among White people.

  • Increased arrests of White individuals for possession of methamphetamine offset declines in marijuana arrests and drove the reduction in racial disparities.

  • The numbers of people admitted to and held in state prisons for drug offenses both fell by about a third, accounting for 61% of the overall reduction in prison populations and 38% of the total decline in admissions.

  • The decline in the number of Black people incarcerated for drug offenses made up 26% of the decrease in prison admissions and 48% of the drop in the prison population.

  • Drug- and alcohol-related mortality rates increased fivefold in prisons and threefold in jails despite the decreases in the number of people in prison for drug offenses.

These trends indicate both an ongoing reliance on the criminal legal system to address drug misuse and that this strategy is costly and ineffective.  Meaningful reductions in total drug arrests and drug-related deaths may not be achieved without shifting to a public health response that prioritizes evidence-based treatment approaches.

February 15, 2022 at 03:30 PM | Permalink


Finally some good news. Hopefully, the racial disparities will narrow in the coming years pursuant to reform. It seems that the extremes of the criminal system, capital punishment and drug offenses, are experiencing changes faster than sentencing reform for violent crimes and property crimes. I suppose ending capital punishment and decriminalizing drugs appeases liberals and fiscal conservatives. Next we can tackle ending LWOP for all crimes except the most brutal of murders, and abolishing mandatory minimum sentences for all non-violent crimes.

Posted by: anon | Feb 15, 2022 10:24:43 PM

Interest in falling numbers of drug arrests = lots and yippee!

Interest in surging numbers of drug overdose deaths = zero and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 15, 2022 11:20:08 PM

Mr. Otis,

The focus of this article and information centers on statistical characteristics and analysis of drug arrests, rates of incarceration and racial composition of arrestees, rehabilitation efforts, etc. The article does not mention or focus upon rates of overdoses, which I think we would all agree is not acceptable and is an important issue (but not the only issue).

Just because the article does not mention or focus upon overdose rates, fentanyl, etc., does not mean that no one else is concerned about it, or cares any less than you.

Attempts at "guilt tripping" others, I find to be offensive.

To be sure, there are multitudes of subject matter not brought up in this article, but by no means does it mean that people are not concerned about those subjects just because they are not mentioned or pointed out.

Posted by: Drug Counslr | Feb 16, 2022 7:55:26 AM

Bill is engaging in whataboutism. I question the sincerity of his concerns and give it no mind. The report of narrowing racial disparities in arrests is a good thing. Although some on here may think differently.

Posted by: Anon | Feb 16, 2022 10:08:49 AM

Drug Counslr --

What an organization writes about, and what it is well aware of and chooses to refrain from writing about, tells me something. I suspect it tells you something as well.

As to offensiveness: Some people find it offensive that I've said, and will continue to say for as long as it's true, that blacks are disproportionately both perpetrators and (even more) victims of violent crime. I don't care. If speakers on criminal justice policy allow themselves to be silenced by the "I'm offended veto" -- a second cousin of the "heckler's veto" -- we're going to have a lot of silence and not much progress.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 16, 2022 1:29:40 PM

Anon --

"Bill is engaging in whataboutism."

Actually I'm not, but I'd be happy to, since it's an excellent teaching and learning tool. Example: Doug Berman and I have been debating Biden's decision to limit his SCOTUS selections to black women. One of the things Doug has said (this is not a verbatim quotation), is whatabout Reagan, who promised to name a woman to SCOTUS? Whatabout Bush, who more-or-less openly sought a black person to replace Justice Marshall?

Is that an illegitimate or dumb form of argument?

Every law professor I know, and I know lots, teaches by using hypotheticals. Typically, they will ask, "We have facts A, B, and C in this case. What is the correct outcome?" Then when they get the student response, they'll ask, "Whatabout if we add D and E. Same answer? Why or why not?" And then they'll ask, "Whatabout if we subtract A but add A-prime, and B exists 75% of the time but not all the time. Same answer?"

Whataboutism is a highly useful and utterly routine teaching tool because it gets students to test their thinking against different variants. It thus encourages more probing reflection and exploration of nuance.

Your objection to it is idiotic.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 16, 2022 1:46:51 PM

We should only applaud a reduction of racial disparities if it is because minorities are using drugs less often. More whites using meth is not a good thing. Decreasing disparities by pushing police out of minority neighborhoods is not a good thing.

I swear the left has the same agenda as the KKK. Keep them poor (by flooding the job market with cheap immigrant labor), separate from whites (identity politics), abort their babies so there are fewer of them, and flood their neighborhoods with drugs.

It’s enough to make David Duke smile.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Feb 16, 2022 4:24:24 PM

"Your objection to it is idiotic."

I don't find my objection idiotic at all. My previous post discussed my positive view of declining arrest rates. You throw out a red herring that people ignore or "sleep on" surging drug deaths. This post is not about overdose deaths, but the decline of drug arrests and racial disparities. Which makes sense, sense this is a legal blog.

Law professors use the Socratic method and post numerous hypotheticals on exams. Still, the student is expected to read and understand the call of the question. In our case, we're discussing drug arrests and racial disparities. You on the other hand, completely jumped over that to kvetch about the presumed lack of empathy over drug overdoses.

Posted by: Anon | Feb 16, 2022 9:34:51 PM

"Law professors use the Socratic method and post numerous hypotheticals on exams."

We're not talking about the Socratic method. We're talking specifically about "whataboutism," which you ridiculed using that name. But the ridicule is, as I said, idiotic, because whataboutism encourages looking beyond A, B, and C to consider other factors not originally stated but nonetheless worth considering. If you think the factor I noted -- the grotesque surge in drug overdose deaths precisely as drug arrests decline -- is not worth considering, or that their relationship is not worth considering, that's your choice, and your remarks here can reflect that choice. My remarks will reflect a different choice.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 16, 2022 10:34:39 PM

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