Pew Analysis: No Relationship Between Drug Imprisonment and Drug Problems

In a letter delivered today to the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, titled “Pew Analysis Finds No Relationship Between Drug Imprisonment and Drug Problems,” The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project released a new analysis showing that there is no statistically significant relationship between states’ drug offender imprisonment rates and three measures of state drug problems: rates of illicit drug use, drug overdose deaths, or drug arrests.

“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,” said Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s public safety performance project.  “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.”

State pairings offer illustrative examples. 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. 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.

These findings reinforce a large body of prior research that casts doubt on the theory that stiffer prison terms effectively deter drug use and other drug-law violations. The evidence strongly suggests that policy makers should pursue alternative strategies that research shows will work better and cost taxpayers less.

The Pew letter includes 50-state data on imprisonment, drug use, arrests and overdose deaths; outlines evidence-based policy strategies; and highlights public opinion surveys that show high levels of bipartisan support for alternative approaches.