April 2, 2014

Feds may be rethinking the drug war, but states have been leading the way

FT_14.03.19_drug_laws310pxFederal drug policy is in the midst of a major conceptual shift away from the long, automatic prison sentences and zero-tolerance policies of the “War on Drugs” era. But it’s the states, whose prisons house the vast bulk of U.S. convicts, that have been leading the way in changing drug laws.

Much of the current rethinking of America’s drug war speaks to today’s environment: Violent crime has fallen, attitudes towards drugs have shifted and the Great Recession has squeezed public budgets.

There’s also wide public support for changing government drug policies. In a new Pew Research Center report, 67% of people said government should focus more on treating people who use illegal drugs, compared with 26% saying prosecution should be the focus. More than six-in-ten (63%) now say that state moves away from mandatory prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders is a good thing, versus 32% who called it a bad thing.

(It’s quite a different story than in 1990, when 73% of Americans favored a mandatory death penalty for “major drug traffickers,” and 57% said police should be allowed to search the houses of “known drug dealers” without a court order.)

Attorney General Eric Holder recently called for reduced sentences for low-level drug offenders in federal cases, with the aim of reducing the growth of the federal prisoner population.  (About half of the nearly 200,000 federal inmates have been convicted of a drug offense.) Earlier, he said low-level drug offenders wouldn’t automatically be charged with offenses that carried strict mandatory minimum sentences, and gave Washington and Colorado the go-ahead to implement marijuana-legalization initiatives. This month, the U.S. Sentencing Commission is expected to vote on a set of amendments to the sentencing guidelines used by federal judges.

The interest in sentencing reform now spans Washington D.C.’s normal partisan and ideological battle lines. The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014, now pending before the Senate, would cut mandatory minimums for a host of federal drug crimes. Its sponsors include Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, liberal Democrats Patrick Leahy and Sheldon Whitehouse, Maine independent Angus King, and libertarian Republicans Rand Paul and Mike Lee.

The federal moves come after years of similar changes at the state level. Between 2009 and 2013, 40 states took some action to ease their drug laws, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of legislative data provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Vera Institute of Justice. Twenty-seven states moved only in the direction of easing, while 13 other states eased some laws and toughened others — often as part of a broader rethink of their drug policies.

State-level actions have included lowering penalties for possession and use of illegal drugs, shortening mandatory minimums or curbing their applicability, removing automatic sentence enhancements, and establishing or extending the jurisdiction of drug courts and other alternatives to the regular criminal justice system. Some have been minor tweaks, such as Idaho’s 2011 change that allowed people convicted of violent felonies to participate in drug courts under certain circumstances. Other states have taken very different approaches to drugs: New York, for instance, moved away from its harsh Rockefeller-era drug laws in 2009.

Last year, Vermont decriminalized possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, while Oregon (where possession of less than an ounce has been a noncriminal violation since 1973) made possession of more than an ounce a misdemeanor rather than a felony. All told, 16 states have passed laws decriminalizing marijuana; Maryland, which reduced penalties for marijuana possession and use in 2012, is now considering decriminalization legislation.

State-level policy changes may not get the attention of federal moves, but they can affect many more people. State prisons house more than six times as many prisoners as federal prisons — more than 1.35 million in 2012, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. And for 16.6% of all state prisoners, a drug crime is their most serious offense (down from 20% in 2006).

A key driver of state action has been rising prison populations and the expense of keeping people locked up. Nationally, per-inmate costs range from range from $14,603 in Kentucky to $60,076 in New York, according to a 2012 study of 40 states (based on fiscal 2010 data) by the Vera Institute. The total cost per inmate averaged $31,286 when pensions and retiree health care, capital expenditures, legal costs and other expenses are included.
Those costs add up. Texas, for example, spent $2.3 billion to add 108,000 prison beds between 1983 and 1997, said Richard Jerome of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project. But by 2007, the state was again out of prison space and the corrections department was asking for $900 million to build more prisons and operate the existing ones.

“Legislative leaders of both parties looked at this and decided it just didn’t make sense to put all of that money into prisons,” Jerome said. Instead, Texas expanded a range of treatment and diversion programs in 2007, including drug courts. Since then, Jerome said, the state has been able to close three prisons while the crime rate has continued to fall.

Arkansas, where the prison population doubled between 1990 and 2010 and corrections costs rose nearly eightfold, revised its drug laws in 2011 to reduce sentences for drug users and steer more of them into probation and other prison alternatives.

Such policy changes, along with falling crime rates, have helped lead to lower imprisonment rates in 31 states. From 2007 to 2012, the overall state imprisonment rate fell from 447 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 population to 413 per 100,000. Over the same period, the federal imprisonment rate edged higher, from 59 to 62 sentenced prisoners per 100,000.


Topics: Criminal Justice, Drugs

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


  1. Chaos2 years ago

    Why in the world our ‘leaders’ think that a war on drugs could possibly be won is beyond me. Didn’t we already try this stupid crap with prohibition and it failed? As far as I can see the only person who would want to stop another person from using drugs in the first place is either a parent(who isn’t as good a parent as they think they are cause their kid is wanting to get high for a reason after all) or a control freak or maybe both. I say they should legalize most drugs not just pot. Maybe not LSD, meth, or unregulated drugs like crack, coke, heroine but pot and all pharmaceutical drugs that can be prescribed by a doctor should be totally legal and able to be bought from a pharmacy without a prescription at lower than street prices. They could also make pharmaceutical heroine, ecstasy, and coke with safer ingredients to replace the street versions. To those people who act like they are worried about overdoses when they are not they are just party poopers and busy bodies all the pharmacist would have to do is sell them in one day doses instead of one month supplies if there was no prescription. The taxes alone on sales of these products would fix Medicare and Social Security and probably be able to fund FREE healthcare for everyone in the U.S. and much more.
    If someone is going to break the law and steal to get the drugs at least this way it would leave a paper trail the police could follow to root them out since they have failed in the war on drugs for the last 25 years cause its all still being sold nationwide. Not to mention it would instantly put all the drugs dealers out of business and stop most of the gang warfare over turf and drugs, its hard to buy guns and bullets to fight with when your income source has dried up. Why fight for that corner if there is no reason to sell anything on it?. It would clean out the prisons and make room for violent criminals, sexual deviants, or thieves (elected officials?) which are the only real criminals anyway. Why would the cartels in Mexico and south America need to transport drugs into our country if we could go to the store and buy them when ever we wanted them? This way it would also stop funding terrorists as we have been told as well!
    If our citizens would get over wanting to control other citizens (god forbid someone have some fun while you are stuck in your miserable life) this would work. Most people are happy though being insufferable while the government tells them that we are waging a war on drugs as they order American soldiers into guarding poppy fields in Afghanistan, look it up people.

    But Nooooo we have to stop them from putting that crap into their bodies right? Meanwhile we let them pump our meat full of hormones and antibiotics and genetically modify our plant sources of food. We allow them to put chemicals in our fat pills(cakes and pies and chips) that Europe has had banned for years do to the dangers involved in consuming………Shut that crap up! You don’t care about their bodies, you don’t care about their minds, you just think drugs are wrong and seeing as you are right about everything you will not change your mind on it no matter how many people these stupid laws hurt. The one good hope is that this mindset is being bred out of you hardliners and after you are dead your children’s children will do something just like this and fix this stupidity. Seems like parents raise kids to clean up after the parents and their idiotic views. The war on drugs will never be won as long as people want an escape from their normal, boring, oppressive lives or as long as they want to seem dangerous and criminal. If the thrill of breaking the law was taken from it you might be surprised at how many quit just because of that!

  2. Boldlime83 years ago

    i could not find where this guy had any significance to be talking about this situation and he did not cite his sources for where he obtained any of this information so in my opinion just don’t believe him with out any of this he could just be coming up with this off the top of his head

  3. James Bryant3 years ago

    To be honest I do not see why it should take so long to legalize marijuana. The government claims that it is a drug. But so is alcohol. And alcohol is more of a gateway drug than marijuana is. Side effects of weed is nothing like the side effects of alcohol. Side effects of weed is happy, hungry and sleepy. What’s the side effects of alcohol. Ummm.

    1. MN3 years ago


    2. Michael3 years ago

      Interesting how drug abusers love to sweep under the rug the fact that their drugs are polluting other people’s air…and bodies…and brains.

      People have a right to clean air, and that includes air free of psychoactive drugs.

      1. Zander Nethercutt2 years ago

        You’re high if you think the effect of second-hand pot smoke is worse than the effect of driving a car every day. Pick your battles, bud.

  4. Pam3 years ago

    What has Arkansas done to reduce drug sentencing for non-violent first time offenders? Why I’m asking I have a daughter in the ADC has been in their for 15yrs now on a 78yr sentence for possession of 9lbs of marijuana. A single mom, 1st offense and non-violent! She has more than served her time for the crime committed!
    Thanks for any info you can give me.

  5. Ashley3 years ago

    I wonder how Georgia specifically has eased their drug laws. I am very curious to find out.

    1. MN3 years ago