Drug Busts As Make-Work for Superfluous Cops


A new report from the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) shows that as violent and property crime rates have fallen since their peaks in the early 1990s, arrests have not fallen commensurately. Instead police have shifted their resources to drug offenses:

Violent and property crime rates have fallen 47 percent and 43 percent since 1991, when the crime rate was at its highest, but arrests have fallen only 20 percent. Instead of making arrests for violent and property crime, police focus on drug offenses, especially small amounts of drugs. Arrests for drug offenses have increased 45 percent between 1993 and 2010, while arrests for violent and property crime have fallen 27 and 22 percent, respectively.

While "crime is at the lowest levels it has been in over 30 years," the JPI notes, "funding for police has increased 445 percent between 1982 and 2007." That's in nominal dollars; taking inflation into account, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports, the increase was 171 percent. During the same period, the U.S. population grew by about 30 percent. Since the violent crime rate today is substantially lower than it was in 1982, something seems to be out of whack, presumably a ratchet effect that drives spending up when crime rates rise but does not allow spending to decline when crime rates go back down. The JPI report notes that the increase in spending on law enforcement has been driven largely by federal initiatives such as Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and the Byrne Justice Assistance Grants, but crime rates were already declining when these programs were established. As the amount of money devoted to policing has risen, so has the incarceration rate, which was 732 per 100,000 in 2010, 39 percent higher than in 1993.

In this context it is easier to understand why marijuana arrests have skyrocketed since the early 1990s, rising from about 327,000 in 1990 to a peak of more than 858,000 in 2009 before falling slightly the following year. Even if it made sense to treat pot smokers like criminals (and most Americans seem to think it doesn't), this trend cannot be explained by an increase in marijuana consumption. Nor has it led to a decline in marijuana consumption, although it has roughly doubled the risk that any give pot smoker will be busted. All those cops need something to do. 

For more on the policies that have given the United States a world-beating incarceration rate, see our July 2011 "Criminal Injustice" package.