As President Donald Trump’s administration appears poised to ramp up its punitive response to drugs, a study released this week finds that imprisoning people for drug offenses has no measurable effect on a number of the most pressing problems associated with these illicit substances.
In a letter Monday addressed to New Jersey Gov. Christie (R), whom Trump tapped earlier this year to lead his task force on the opioid epidemic, Adam Gelb of the Pew Charitable Trusts lays out state-by-state data on drug imprisonment, overdose deaths, drug arrests and self-reported drug use, not including marijuana. His conclusion: There is “no statistically significant relationship” between those numbers.
“If locking up more drug offenders worked as intended, then we would expect to see states with higher rates of drug imprisonment enjoy lower rates of drug abuse,” Gelb said in a release. “But that’s not what the data show. Instead, we see no correlation at all. There’s more punishment in those states, and higher taxpayer costs for prisons, but no evidence of benefits for public health or public safety.”
Gelb is director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project, which advocates for practical, cost-effective criminal justice reform policies at the state level.
His letter came a few days after the first meeting of the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and Opioid Crisis, which Trump assembled in the spring. At a session on Friday, panelists reportedly pleaded with Christie to support evidence-based drug treatment options and spoke out aggressively against GOP-led plans to slash Medicaid, which provides coverage for people with issues related to mental illness and drug addiction.
It’s not yet clear how these recommendations will play in Trump’s administration. Many drug policy experts have expressed concern that the White House is intent on turning to the sort of enforcement-first approaches Attorney General Jeff Sessions has championed in his first few months at the Justice Department and throughout his political career.
Putting more drug offenders behind bars—for longer periods of time — has not yielded a convincing public safety return. Adam Gelb of the Pew Charitable Trusts
In an op-ed last week, Sessions defended his recent decision to roll back Obama-era sentencing reforms, which had given federal prosecutors leeway to charge certain crimes in ways that would not trigger mandatory minimums, which automatically result in set prison terms. Under the new guidelines, prosecutors will once again be required to take the most aggressive approach possible against federal criminal defendants. Sessions described this as a move to “get tough again” and to begin fulfilling “the president’s promise to make America safe again.”
But Pew’s study suggests this is the beginning of a return to failed drug policies of previous decades, which led to nearly 300,000 drug offenders being held in state and federal prisons in 2015, up from less than 25,000 in 1980.
Although federal prison spending has grown nearly 600 percent between 1980 and 2013, the Pew report finds this approach has failed to provide a benefit to public safety. Rates of self-reported drug use have only increased over this period, as illicit drugs have gotten cheaper and more pure. And we’ve gotten very little return on our investment in prisons, as nearly a third of drug offenders who leave federal prison go on to commit new crimes or violate the conditions of their release — a rate that has remained stable over the past few decades.
By drilling down on state-level data and controlling for a variety of demographic variables, Pew said that while harsh drug enforcement may further the retributive, “values-driven argument” that the government must teach “wrong-doers a lesson,” it does little to address actual drug problems.
“For instance, Tennessee imprisons drug offenders at a rate more than three times greater than New Jersey, but the illicit drug use rate in the two states is virtually the same,” the report read. “Conversely, Indiana and Iowa have nearly identical rates of drug imprisonment, but Indiana ranks 27th among states in its rate of illicit drug use and 18th in drug overdose deaths while Iowa ranks 44th and 47th respectively.”
The Pew study proposes a variety of alternative approaches to drugs that have begun to show tangible results in some states. It encourages policymakers to focus on diverting offenders with substance use disorders into treatment, training police in overdose prevention, expanding probation and parole opportunities for drug offenders and providing public funds for medication-assisted treatment — which uses a combination of therapy and U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved medication to treat addiction.
“What research does make clear is that some ways of reducing drug use and crime are more effective than others — and that imprisonment ranks near the bottom of the list,” Geld wrote in the letter. “Putting more drug offenders behind bars — for longer periods of time — has not yielded a convincing public safety return. What it has generated, without doubt, is an enormous cost for taxpayers.”