Effect of drug offenses on mass incarceration

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The prison population in the United States has exploded from approximately three hundred thousand prisoners in 1980 to over two million in 2000. A large percentage of the growth has come from drug related offenses. In 1980 only 15 people per 100,000 adults were convicted of drug offenses, but by 1996, 148 were, an almost tenfold increase. One common misconception about the war on drugs is that officers are aiming to take out the source of the problem, the people selling the drugs. Of those arrested on a drug related charge, four out of five were arrested for possession and only one out of five were arrested with intent to sell.[1] Eighty percent of the growth in drug related arrests during the 1990s was marijuana, despite the fact it is a drug that is less harmful than tobacco or alcohol. The amount of drug arrests that have resulted in prison sentences, as opposed to an alternative such as rehabilitation or community service, has quadrupled in the last few decades.[2]

War on Drugs[edit]

One big part of the increase of drug related offenses ending in prison time is the War on Drugs. Before the Drug Reform Act of 1986, the longest sentence imposed by Congress for any amount of any drug was one year. In 1991, the Court upheld a life sentence for a defendant with no prior convictions who tried to sell 672 grams of crack cocaine. Even now many other countries impose sentences measured in months rather than years, even for high end drugs. Mandatory minimum sentences, in many cases, have made judges give longer sentences to drug offenses than those for violent criminals. When the judge was able to consider a person's background and arrest record in giving a sentence, drug related offenses were not as strict because these offenders generally had no other criminal record. A judge could also sentence them to rehabilitation where the person could get better and drug-free. However, with the minimum sentences, people are thrown into the prison system where their habits will only get worse and most likely end up back in prison.[2] Imprisonment was designed to deliver a docile labor force and to punish, not to rehabilitate.[3]

Long-term effects[edit]

Once someone has been convicted with a drug felony, their life will often be turned upside down if they do get out of the prison cycle. They can apply for government housing after a three-year waiting period, in addition to proving they have been rehabilitated. The Higher Education Act of 1998 takes away eligibility for a student loan for someone convicted of a drug-related offense. These people will have their driver’s licenses revoked or suspended by their states. Once someone does get out of the prison, they often become a dead weight on society because they are unable to participate in the many freedoms we take for granted. Since they are unable to be fully productive members of society, they oftentimes will turn to drugs to cope with their lost freedoms, leading to another arrest and more jail time.[4]


  1. ^ Zakaria, Fareed (2 April 2012). "Incarceration Nation". Time. Retrieved 28 October 2014. 
  2. ^ a b Alexander, Michelle (2010). "The Lockdown". The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness: 58–94. 
  3. ^ Ogden, Stormy (2005). "The Prison-Industrial Complex in Indigenous California". Global Lockdown: Race, Gender, and the Prison-Industrial Complex: 57–65. 
  4. ^ Travis, Jeremy (2002). "Invisible Punishment: An Instrument of Social Exclusion". Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Incarceration: 15–36.