To better identify and understand recent changes in and effects of the use of the criminal legal system to address drug problems, The Pew Charitable Trusts analyzed publicly available national data on drug arrests and imprisonment, drug treatment, and harm from drug misuse from 2009 through 2019—the most recent decade for which data is available.
The study found divergent enforcement trends—high rates of arrest but substantially reduced incarceration—coupled with a lack of treatment options and high mortality rates among people with illicit drug dependence.
- Drug possession arrests held steady at more than a million a year, in stark contrast with a large reduction in overall arrests, which dropped 29%.
- Only 1 in 13 people who were arrested and had a drug dependency received treatment while in jail or prison.
- Racial disparities in drug enforcement declined. Arrests of Black people for drug offenses fell by 37%, more than three times the drop among White people.
- Increased arrests of White individuals for possession of methamphetamine offset declines in marijuana arrests and drove the reduction in racial disparities.
- The numbers of people admitted to and held in state prisons for drug offenses both fell by about a third, accounting for 61% of the overall reduction in prison populations and 38% of the total decline in admissions.
- The decline in the number of Black people incarcerated for drug offenses made up 26% of the decrease in prison admissions and 48% of the drop in the prison population.
- Drug- and alcohol-related mortality rates increased fivefold in prisons and threefold in jails despite the decreases in the number of people in prison for drug offenses.
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The report can be downloaded HERE