The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Drug offenders make up nearly one-third of prison admissions, new analysis shows

Kelli Taylor, co-founder of Free Minds, leads a group of members in a reading/writing workshop. Free Minds is a book club that, according to its Web site, "uses books, creative writing, and peer support to awaken DC youth incarcerated as adults to their own potential." (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Drug policy activists long have said that decriminalizing parts of the drug trade would relieve some of the burden on overcrowded prisons. But some researchers have pushed back against this notion in recent years.

They point out that drug offenders account for only about 1 in 5 state and federal inmates. The Urban Institute showed earlier this year that cutting drug admissions in half would reduce the state prison population by only about 7 percent. Facts like these have led some to conclude that ending the drug war will do little to end the mass incarceration crisis.

But in a new analysis published this week, Brookings Institution fellow Jonathan Rothwell says that arguments about the impact of drug reforms on prison populations have overlooked one key distinction: the difference between the number of people in prison at any given time, and the number of people moving into and out of prison. Rothwell calls this "stock and flow."

[The U.S. has more jails than colleges. Here's a map of where those prisoners live.]

He points out that while drug offenses account for only 20 percent of the prison population, they make up nearly one-third — 31 percent — of the total admissions to prison. The reason for the difference? Drug offenders typically serve shorter sentences than, say, murderers or other violent criminals. So simply looking at the number of people in prison at a given point in time understates the true impact of drug laws on incarceration.

"Drug crimes have been the predominant reason for new admissions into state and federal prisons in recent decades," Rothwell writes. "In every year from 1993 to 2009, more people were admitted for drug crimes than violent crimes."

Rothwell agrees that rolling back the drug war won't totally solve the incarceration problem. "But it could help a great deal, by reducing exposure to prison," he writes. Even a brief jail or prison sentence — even just an arrest — can have dire consequences for people at the poorer margins of society.

A 30-day jail term for a pot bust, for instance, can mean the loss of a job, the loss of income, and an eventual turn to crime to survive.

"A dangerous combination of approaches to policing, prosecution, sentencing, criminal justice, and incarceration is resulting in higher costs for taxpayers, less opportunity for affected individuals, and deep damage to hopes for racial equality," Rothwell concludes.

More from The Washington Post:

How for-profit prisons have become the biggest lobby no one is talking about

Teen pot use holds steady in first year of legal weed

Releasing 6,000 inmates isn't enough. Here's how we can release at least a million more.