An analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts found no statistically significant relationship between states’ drug offender imprisonment rates and rates of illicit drug use, overdose deaths, and arrests. The findings reinforce previous research that cast doubt on the theory that stiffer prison terms deter drug use and related crime. In a letter to the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, Pew compared publicly available data from law enforcement, corrections, and health agencies from all 50 states.
The nation’s criminal justice system is administered by states, which have made different policy choices regarding punishments for drug crimes, resulting in widely varied imprisonment rates. For example, Louisiana had the highest U.S. drug-offender imprisonment rate in 2014, with 226.4 drug offenders in prison per 100,000 residents. Massachusetts’s rate was the lowest, 30.2 per 100,000 residents, less than one-seventh Louisiana’s rate. Higher rates of drug imprisonment do not translate into lower rates of drug use, fewer drug arrests, or fewer overdose deaths, Pew said. The findings hold even when controlling for standard demographic variables, such as education level, employment, race, and median household income.