NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Impact Of Crack

March 2, 1999

Ten years ago, half as many people were arrested for drug crimes, and the nation's incarceration rate was closer to those of other democracies.

But in the 1980s, crack cocaine -- and its close association with violent crime -- scarred the country. The U.S. toughened its drug laws, paying specific attention to crack.

  • In the decade since then, the number of people imprisoned for drugs has shot up more than 400 percent -- nearly twice the growth rate for violent criminals.
  • More people are behind bars for drug offenses -- 400,000 -- than are in prison for all crimes in England, France, Germany and Japan combined.
  • The most recent National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, for 1997, estimated that about 14 million people had used an illegal drug in the past month -- a number barely changed since 1988.
  • Of those, 600,000 had smoked crack within a month -- unchanged since 1988.

But during that time, imprisonment rates soared.

From 1990 to 1996, federal drug convictions for blacks rose 148 percent. Drug convictions among whites increased 38 percent, while rates for Hispanics increased 63 percent.

Source: Timothy Egan, "War on Crack Retreats, Still Taking Prisoners," New York Times, February 28, 1999.


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