Nation of Prisoners II


Another interesting aspect of the AP story in the Washington Post on the rise of the US prison population was the way the lede was phrased: "America's prison population grew again in 2002 despite a declining crime rate…." Perhaps a more accurate formulation would have been: "America's crime rate declined because the prison population grew again in 2002…."

I hasten to add that locking up scores of thousands of nonviolent drug users is not only a waste money, it is an injustice.

[Thanks to D.A. Ridgely for the link]

NEXT: Smoke-Free Theater

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    Check out this passing comment in today’s LA Times:

    Juvenile prison inmates have dropped from 7,600 three years ago to about 4,900 today, the result of a demographic shift and a sharp decline in youth violence. Felony juvenile arrests in California are half of what they were two decades ago.

    Why is the juvenile trend so different from the adult trend?

  2. Since we’ve opened the can of worms, here goes. Can someone point to examples of countries with more liberal drug laws to support the claims that legalizing drugs would reduce prison populations without increasing (other) crimes? Or are there experiments from America’s past which might help us understand what a future of legalized drugs might be? I’d like to stay away from libertarian theory and stick to utilitarian data if possible.

    I’ve seen some statistics which say drug overdose deaths are similar in New York City and the capital of a northern European country whose name escapes me, suggesting that the net effect of drug laws on overdose deaths is zero, one way or the other, but neither does one statistic indicate the whole truth, nor is overdosing the only problem with drug legalization, I’m sure.

    I saw Geraldo Rivera’s FoxNews show Saturday evening, broadcast from Columbia, and I must say it disturbs me we are spending so much time, money, and life on a solution that doesn’t seem to be doing much. I’m also increasingly of the opinion that addicts will be addicts, non-addicts will be non-addicts, responsible people will be responsible, and irresponsible people will be irresponsible, despite the laws. That said, I hope there are data, from American or non-American sources, that could make the issue easier to understand without running a grand and potentially dangerous experiment.

  3. Hovig, If the federal gov’t would allow drug liberalization experiments at the state level, such as medical marijuana, one could develop the utilitarian data needed to make changes on the national scale.

  4. Tom, I really don’t know, and don’t have time to check where, but I’ve read that the drop in numbers of juvenile offenders is mainly because of the demographic shift — less juveniles = less juvenile offenders. Maybe the increase in adults imprisoned is some of those kids getting out of kid’s prison and graduating to adult offender status?

  5. It has been shown many times that crime rates and the number of people in jail are not related, which is why Ronald Bailey’s reformaulation strikes me as meaningless as the original.

    We seem to equate the state of our justice system with the number of people successfully locked up. One interesting result of privatising so much of the correction system is that it has reduced it to its essentials: poor people are being locked up by an arbitrary justice system for no purpose but to enrich the compaines who are paid to warehouse them.

  6. One of the main arguments for drug legalization is that it creates a black market for the illicit product and thus enables criminals to make money where they otherwise would not be in business.

    Al Capone would have still been a criminal had it not been for prohibition, though he would probably not have been a household name.

    Point being that the average drug user rarely sees any jail time as it is their dealers the law is focusing on. (Please, save us the anomalous stories of the guy who spent years in the pen for one joint.) And these dealers, for the most part, are criminals. If drugs were legalized, they would still be criminals selling, robbing or doing whatever else.

    Is drug legalization going to reduce the prison population? Not in any substantial sense.

    We need to focus more on the fact that 12 year olds can buy a ? oz bag in the locker room with as much ease as going to a vending machine but getting booze on the weekend is relatively tough. Oh, they still drink but without the black market induced profit margin, no one has the incentive to sell bottles of whiskey out of their locker or the trunk of their car. Legalizing drugs is the best way of controlling the sell of drugs to those too young to make such decisions, as our regulation of alcohol has proven.

  7. “…a sharp decline in youth violence…”

    Let’s see our news media report on THAT one. Yeah right. Our news media still has us so freaked out about Columbine that everyone thinks that youth violence has INCREASED DRAMATICALLY in recent years. Just another example of perception being quite different from reality.

  8. “Or are there experiments from America’s past which might help us understand what a future of legalized drugs might be?”


  9. Dear Anonymous: You claim “It has been shown many times that crime rates and the number of people in jail are not related….” I’m curious–where has this been shown? See URL: for an alternative view.

  10. Anon;

    It’s a little dated but Charles Murray’s “Losing Ground” would be a good read for you. And a neccessary one if you’re going run in these circles.

  11. HOVIG: Can someone point to examples of countries with more liberal drug laws to support the claims that legalizing drugs would reduce prison populations without increasing (other) crimes?

    Steve: Well since we have the largest jail population in the free world and we also have the highest level of illicit drug use, violent crime and property crime, then most any country’s policies would suffice as an example.

    The Netherlands, UK, Canada and Australia are likely the most relevant countries in terms of having democratic governments and many similar social attitudes and policies. All of them have less stringent sanctions against illicit drug use.

    All of them have lower levels of violent and property crime. All of them have lower levels of drug abuse. And all have lower levels of incarceration.

    The best resource on the net for information along this line can be read at

    Questions and relevant comments welcome via email.


  12. If imprisoning a nonviolent drug user is an injustice, it is one the victim of which could have prevented easily. He could have decided not to break the law.

    That is not a difficult concept. Nor is it evident that there are so few other things to do with one’s life in this country of ours that drug use is essential in any sense. It may be that federal and state government policy with respect to certain drugs is unwise, but to talk about drug use as if it were some kind of essential freedom trivializes the entire concept.

  13. Quite so, and thanks to Mr. Bailey for the acknowledgement. The article goes on to claim that over half of all federal prisoners are drug offenders (although it does not make clear whether they are incarcerated for drug offenses, per se).

    I rather suspect the total state and federal prison population would shrink by far more than 50% if drugs were legalized. Prohibition creates artificial scarcity and, thus, artificially high prices. Say what you will for the perfidious effects of tobacco and alcohol, few smokers or drinkers are ever arrested for crimes committed principally to support their habits.

  14. Zathras:

    Saying that one can easily avoid breaking a law doesnt automatically make that law fair. A law prohibiting eating cheese on Tuesdays is extremely easy to follow, but is obviously irrational and unfair. So is a law prohibiting a certain class of people, say, blacks, from sitting in a certain part of a bus. It’s easy to decide not to sit there, but that doesn’t justify the law.

    Any government regulation that takes away people’s rights must be justified, however “unessential” those rights may be. They are still the people’s rights, not for the government (or the majority) to take away on whim.

  15. The people’s rights according to whom? Laws against drug use have been around for a long time. For the most part they are not the products of a few old white men out to ruin a good time, but of a widely shared and longstanding majority view that drug use is undesirable and harmful to society.

    Now, arguments can be made against some of these laws, on the grounds that they direct taxpayer resources away from more pressing needs; represent a potential or actual source of police misconduct and/or corruption; help produce more crime by exposing young offenders to the worst inmates of the American prison system; or represent a doomed attempt to use law to arrest a decline in public morals. I agree with some of these arguments myself with respect to some laws respecting drugs.

    The weakest argument is the one that treats drug use as a fundamental right (incidentally, I cannot offhand think of many better ways to illustrate its weakness than comparing laws against drug use with laws upholding segregation). Neither the Founders, nor Lincoln’s generation, nor many of the people who served in Congress or on the Supreme Court since would have recognized any such right, and since we owe to them the freedoms we have today I think it inappropriate to decide they were all wrong without a good reason. The modern tendency to worship the pursuit of physical pleasure above all else notwithstanding, we don’t have one.

  16. Do meth freaks and crackheads count as nonviolent drug users? They always seem to be wrestling with the police on the tv show “Cops”.

  17. We have the highest level of violent crime and property crime?

    Naw. Don’t think so.

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