No issue has had more impact on the criminal justice system in the past three decades than national drug policy.
The “war on drugs,” officially declared in the early 1980s, has been a primary contributor to the enormous growth of the prison system in the United States during the last quarter-century and has affected all aspects of the criminal justice system and, consequently, American society. As a response to the problem of drug abuse, national drug policies have emphasized punishment over treatment, and in a manner that has had a disproportionate impact on low-income minority communities. After millions of people arrested and incarcerated, it is clear that the “war on drugs” has reshaped the way America responds to crime and ushered in an era of instability and mistrust in countless communities.
By the mid-1990s, the climate regarding drug policy in the United States had shifted somewhat, reflecting a growing frustration with the “lock ‘em up” strategy to addressing drug abuse and growing support for the treatment model of combating drug abuse. The result was the proliferation of drug courts and other alternative sentencing strategies that sought to divert lowlevel drug offenders from prison into community-based treatment programs. Despite the expansion of these options over the last decade, the punitive sentencing provisions of the 1980s remain in effect across the United States, resulting in a record number of arrests, convictions, and sentences to prison for drug offenses.
This report analyzes 25 years of government data regarding drugs and the criminal justice system and finds that the “war on drugs” has increasingly targeted low-level offenders for arrest and incarceration, and is largely failing to provide adequate treatment in prison.
To read the report, download the PDF below.