NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Locking Up Drug Offenders

March 8, 1999

Serious crime rates have fallen steadily for the past six years. But the number of people incarcerated has grown just as steadily in recent years. The reason for this seeming anomaly is that more and more offenders are being sentenced on drug charges.

  • Soon, the total number of people locked up in federal and state prisons and local jails will likely reach the two million mark, experts predict -- almost double the number a decade ago.
  • The U.S. will have to add the equivalent of a new 1,000 bed jail or prison every week -- for perhaps another decade.
  • In the federal system, nearly 60 percent of all people behind bars are there for drug violations -- with 22 percent of those in state prisons and local jails doing time for drugs.
  • Those numbers are triple the rate of 15 years ago.

Some criminologists contend the government has gone too far in its war on drugs. Morgan Reynolds, criminal justice specialist at the National Center for Policy Analysis, says he is "in favor of the federal government ceasing and desisting the war on drugs." While he credits policies of sending more criminals to jail for the drop in crime, he doubts that the war on drugs has had an effect on crime rates and drug use.

It costs taxpayers $20,000 a year to house and feed each new inmate -- not counting the cost of building new prisons and jails. The states are spending nearly $30 billion to keep people in jail -- about double the rate of 10 years ago.

Source: Timothy Egan, "Less Crime, More Criminals," New York Times, March 7, 1999.


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