More than half a million people were behind bars for drug offenses in the United States at the end of last year, according to numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In a report released Sunday, Prisoners in 2004, the Justice Department number-crunchers found that people sentenced for drug crimes accounted for 21% of state prisoners and 55% of all federal prisoners.
Drug war prisoners make up only about one-fourth of an all-time high 2,268,000 people behind bars in the US, up 1.9% from 2003. But while the imprisonment juggernaut continues to roll along, there are faint signs that its growth is slowing. Last year's 1.9% increase in prison and jail population was lower than the year before (2.0%) and lower than the 3.2% average annual growth rate for the past decade.
Of the nearly 2.2 million people behind bars last year, 50.5% were serving time for violent crime. That means that more than 1.1 million people were imprisoned for nonviolent offenses, mainly property and drug crimes.
The still rising prison population comes after a decade of declines in violent and property crime. According to the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Reports, violent crime declined 2.2% last year and has dropped a whopping 32% since 1995. Property crime rates have also declined, although not so dramatically, dropping 23% since 1985.
Even as violent and property crime rates have declined, drug arrests have continued to climb, reaching more than 1.7 million last year. The consequences of those arrests show up in the ever-increasing drug war prisoner numbers.
With an incarceration rate of 724 per 100,000 inhabitants, the United States is the unchallenged world leader in both raw numbers and imprisonment per capita. With a global prison population estimated at nine million, the US accounts for about one-quarter of all prisoners on the planet. In terms of raw numbers, only China, with almost four times the population of the US, comes close with about 1.5 million prisoners. Our closer competitors in incarceration rates are Russia (638 per 100,000) and Belarus (554), according to the British government's World Prison Population report.
"The nation does not have to lock more people up to have safer communities," said Jason Ziedenberg, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a sentencing reform research and advocacy group. "Rather than lead the world with the highest incarceration rate, we should follow the states and regions that are reducing prison populations, reducing crime, and investing in communities."
"The overall numbers are sort of discouraging," said Marc Mauer, assistant director of the sentencing reform group The Sentencing Project. "Crime has gone down for 10 years now, but prison numbers are still going up. This is in large part due to the impact of harsher sentencing policies, like three-strikes laws and cutbacks in parole. In recent years, we have not seen a dramatic change in the number of people going to prison; it's just that people are being held longer in prison," he told DRCNet. "It is not clear that this harsh sentencing provides a lot of additional benefits in terms of public safety, and it is expensive both in terms of dollars and in its impact on people's lives."
The numbers for drug offenders were equally discouraging. "We have almost half a million people behind bars for drug offenses," Mauer pointed out. "We had a record number of drug arrests last year. In recent years, we've seen hundreds of drug courts open up, but that doesn't appear to be significantly cutting into the growth of drug prisoners."
Especially notable this year was the continuing increase in women prisoners. Their numbers increased 4% to nearly 105,000, continuing the steady rise in their numbers over the past decade. In 1995, 68,000 women were behind bars. A larger percentage of women state prisoners, 31% are doing time for drug crimes than are men (21%).
"The increase in women prisoners is very much related to drug issues, even more so than men," said Mauer. "Women are more likely to be locked up for a drug offense."
Black and Hispanic prisoners are also more likely to be doing drug war time. More than a quarter of black and Hispanic prisoners are serving drug sentences, compared to less than 15% of white prisoners.
The federal prisoner population increased by 4.2% last year, with fully half of that increase driven by new drug prisoners. The number of people doing federal time for drug offenses has exploded in the last decade, increased from 53,000 in 1995 to 2003's 87,000. The Federal Bureau of Prisons is now the largest prison system in the land, with 180,000 inmates, followed by Texas (168,000), California (167,000), and Florida (86,000). The federal system is now at 40% over capacity, BJS reported.
While some criminologists have argued that crime has gone down precisely because so many people are in prison, not everyone is buying that argument. "Imprisoning large numbers of people has some effect on crime, but there is a point of diminishing returns," argued the Sentencing Project's Mauer. "Initial research shows that maybe a quarter of the decline in violent crime is due to incarceration, but that means three-quarters isn't. The rest has something to do with a relatively healthy economy in the 1990s, the reduction in crime and violence associated with the maturing of the crack cocaine epidemic in the early 1990s, and the efforts by police in some cities to reduce the flow of guns."
Violent and property crime is down, but discretionary drug arrests continue to go through the roof. "If police are looking to increase arrests," said Mauer, "drug arrests are easy. Low-level drug possession cases are plentiful if you want to make and prosecute them. That doesn't mean it's necessarily a great idea."