According to new data from the U.S. Department of Justice, one in 136 Americans is behind bars today, including an astounding 12 percent of all black men between the ages of 25 and 29. The United States represents 4.6 percent of the world’s population, but houses nearly 23 percent of humanity’s prison population. Certainly, part of this is likely due to politicians’ unfortunate habit of addressing every social problem with a new law, but much of it is due to our ever-more-draconian drug laws. A few more statistics to chew on from the latest edition of Drug War Facts, published by Common Sense for Drug Policy:
As of 2005, drug offenders accounted for 55 percent of the federal prison population. About 45 percent of them were in prison for possession, not trafficking. The number of people incarcerated in federal prisons for drug crimes rose from 14,976 in 1986 to 68,360 in 1999. It costs U.S. taxpayers $3 billion per year to keep drug offenders behind bars in federal prisons. Drug offenders have accounted for nearly half the meteoric growth in prison populations since 1995. About half the population of U.S. jails and prisons are nonviolent offenders, more than the combined populations of Wyoming and Alaska. Forty percent of the more than 1,000 state prisons in the U.S. opened in just the last 25 years. The state of Texas alone has opened an average of 5.7 new prisons each year for the last 21 years. Despite this, about half of federal and state prisons operate over capacity. Total U.S. inmates numbered 488,000 in 1985, 1.3 million in 2001, and number 2.2 million today. According to survey data by human rights groups, one in five U.S. prison inmates has been sexually assaulted. According to federal sentencing guidelines, a man would need to possess 50 times more powder cocaine (preferred by white users) than crack cocaine (preferred by black users) to earn the same prison sentence. Blacks represent about 12 percent of the U.S. population, but 48 percent of the prison population. They represent just 13 percent of drug users, but 38 percent of those arrested for drug crimes, and 59 percent of those convicted. When convicted of the same drug felony, blacks are about 50 percent more likely to be sentenced to prison than whites. A black woman’s chances of spending some time in prison over the course of her life (5.6 percent) is about equal that of a white man (5.9 percent). For black men, the odds are nearly one in three (32.2%). Before Congress passed mandatory minimums for offenses related to crack (but which didn’t apply to powder cocaine) in 1986, the average drug-related sentence for blacks was 11 percent higher than for whites. After that law, the disparity jumped to 49 percent.
Despite all of this, overall drug use in this country hasn’t substantially abated. According to government survey data, the percentage of people reporting illicit drug use in their lifetimes rose from 31.3 percent in 1979 to 35.8 percent in 1998. Between 1999 and 2001, the figure went from 39.7 to 41.1 (data prior to 1998 isn’t comparable to data after 1998 due to changes in methodology). The percentage of college students reporting having used marijuana in the last year went from 27.9 percent in 1993 to 33.7 percent in 2003; the number using in the past month went from 14.2 percent to 19.3 percent; and the number reporting daily use went from 1.9 percent to 4.7 percent.
Interestingly, all of these increases have come from people over 18 years of age. Drug use among minors is significantly down. Which means that even as adult Americans are more likely to take recreational drugs than they once were (and given these figures, with little corresponding social harm), they’re doing a good job of steering their kids away from them. Nevertheless, the government continues to arrest and incarcerate drug offenders, and in fact is now expanding its reach to include not just recreational users and traffickers, but doctors and patients who use controlled drugs to treat illnesses in ways the drug warriors have determined are “outside the scope of legitimate medical practice.” One wonders what percentage of Americans will need to be in prison before our politicians find the courage to say “enough.”