At least five states have reclassified all simple drug possession to a misdemeanor from a felony since 2014 in an effort to reduce prison populations—and it seems to be working—according to a new report released by the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute.
As the country continues to grapple with the opioid crisis, a growing body of evidence shows treatment, not incarceration, is the most effective way to address drug addiction, say report c0-authors Julia Durnan, a policy analyst at the Justice Policy Institute, and Brian Elderboom, an affiliated scholar.
There are more than 20 million people in the U.S. with a current or prior felony conviction, about four times more than in 1980.
Much of the growth in felony convictions can be attributed to our nation’s drug laws, the study noted.
“Changing drug convictions is an important policy change that states can adopt to reduce incarceration for drug possession cases, and invest in more effective treatment interventions,” the authors said.
California was the first state to reclassify drug possession in 2014, as part of voter-approved Proposition 47, and similar reforms have been signed into law by governors in Utah (2015), Connecticut (2015), and Alaska (2016). Reclassification was approved on the ballot in Oklahoma in 2016.
Early indicators on the impact of this reclassification show promise, the report said.
- The Utah prison population has declined nine percent since Gov. Gary Herbert signed House Bill (H.B.) 348, fueled in part by a 74 percent decline in new court commitments for drug possession. The legislation also directs the state to invest more than $10 million in behavioral health programs and training for treatment staff.
- In Connecticut, as of December 2017, the population in prison for drug possession had declined 74 percent to only 134 people, including an 80 percent decline in the pretrial population. Budget experts estimate that reclassification of drug possession will save the Department of Corrections $5.3 million in FY 2016 and $9.8 million in FY 2017.
- In California, reclassifying drug possession has helped lead to a decline in both state prison and local jail populations. As a result, California awarded more than $100 million in grants to local governments for mental health treatment, victims’ services, and crime prevention programs.
A full copy of the report can be found here.
This summary was prepared by senior TCR staff writer Megan Hadley.