NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Impact of Imprisoning Drug Offenders

June 6, 2002

The number of Americans incarcerated on drug-related offenses rose 15-fold between 1980 and 2000, to its current level of 400,000. Despite this enormous increase, there has been no systematic, empirical analysis of the implications of the new, tougher drug laws for public safety, drug markets and public policy.

According to a new study, the increase in the prison population on drug-related offenses led to reductions in time served for other crimes, especially for less serious offenses. This phenomenon is primarily attributable to the limited space available at penal institutions.

However, despite this reduction in time served, other crimes did not increase more than a few percent. Thus, researchers claim:

  • Incarcerating drug offenders was almost as effective in reducing violent and property crime as incarcerating other types of offenders.
  • Furthermore, as a consequence of increases in punishments for drug-related crimes, cocaine prices are 10-15 percent higher today than they were in 1985 --suggesting that cocaine consumption fell, perhaps as much as 20 percent.
  • The cost-benefit calculations might even be more favorable, because incarceration not only lowers crime, but also drug consumption.
  • Thus annual expenditures of approximately $10 billion on drug incarceration almost pay for themselves through reductions in health care costs and lost productivity attributable to illegal drug use, even ignoring any crime reductions associated with such incarceration.

At this point the figures are still speculative and may not include other relevant costs and benefits. They also do not explore whether other ways for reducing drug usage and crime rates are more cost effective than incarceration.

Source: Les Picker, "Favorable Effects of Imprisoning Drug Offenders," NBER Policy Digest, January 2002; based on Ilyana Kuziemko and Steven Levitt, "An Empirical Analysis of Imprisoning Drug Offenders," NBER Working Paper No. 8489, National Bureau of Economic Research.

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