Researcher Finds Glitch in Prison/Drug Statistics


Would the reform of drug laws substantially decrease America’s prison population? The Urban Institute showed earlier this year that cutting drug admissions in half would only reduce the state prison population by about 7 percent, leading some to say that ending the drug war will do little to end the mass incarceration crisis, reports the Washington Post. But in a new analysis, Brookings Institution fellow Jonathan Rothwell says arguments about the impact of drug reforms on prison populations overlook one key distinction: the difference between the number of people in prison at any given time and the number moving into and out of prison.

Rothwell calls this “stock and flow.” He points out that while drug offenses only account for 20 percent of the prison population, they make up 31 percent of the total admissions to prison. The reason for the difference? Drug offenders typically serve shorter sentences than murderers or other violent criminals. So simply looking at the number of people in prison at a given point in time understates the true impact of drug laws on incarceration. Rothwell agrees that rolling back the drug war won’t end mass incarceration. “But it could help a great deal,” he writes.

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