Drug War

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.

NEXT: Obama Still Bogarting Nation's Joints, Man.

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  1. But no, we are NOT a police state… of course not…

  2. Oh, sure. The Libertardians just want to defund cops and leave us all exposed to crime so you can smokre more pot! We need police protection! Kochtopus!

    1. The SCOTUS has ruled several times that cops have no duty to protect anyone.

      When seconds count, the cops are only minutes away.

  3. Pedophile priest now works for TSA: http://philadelphia.cbslocal.c…..ks-at-phl/

  4. Heard a funny (but not ha-ha funny)story at the journo-bar last night. An intern at the daily paper wrote a “Oh my God teh bath saltz are gonna kill our kids!” story, about a violent user being shot by the cops.
    The story had all the requisite scary quotes from cops and health “professionals” about the new(ish) and unprecedented menace of killer saltz.
    Problem was, the perp allegedly had done the exact same shit several years ago on nothing but blood pressure meds. The (really good) cops reporter dug up that little fact and wrote an add to the story, but it was taken out by editors. Guess it didn’t fit the narrative.
    Probably a blessing, though. Otherwise, the paper might have started a illicit blood-pressure meds scare.

    1. You can have my Atenelol when…ERK! NO! DON’T…TAKE…MY….gaaaaaaajdapjs


    2. Nice. I remember when we had a bunch of those stories here. Nobody ever commented on how most of the time the salt crazed maniacs had also been drinking all day before the insanity began.

  5. Why chase after violent criminals?

    It’s much safer for cops to SWAT at low level pot smokers at Zero Dark Thirty than to chase real criminals. Why do you hate cops so much that you’d prefer they risk their lives chasing after violent criminals rather than those who pose a risk only to the Doritos bag in the pantry?

  6. Dude, drugs is where da money is at. Between the “civil forfeiture” and the cops selling the confiscated drugs on the side, thar’s gold in them thar hills!

  7. These cops do need to find something else to do – they need to be laid off and find themselves new jobs. We can’t arrest one group of people just because it creates jobs for another group! We arrest people because it makes innocent people safer and because the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs.

  8. The last of Sir Robert Peel’s Nine Prnciples of Law Enforcement:
    The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.


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