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Distorted Priorities: Drug Offenders in State Prisons

September 01, 2002
Ryan King and Marc Mauer
Our analysis of different measures of drug offender behavior overall indicates that there is significant potential for diverting many state prison drug offenders from incarceration.

Because of the harshness of federal mandatory sentencing laws and the increased prosecution of drug offenders in federal courts, there has been a good deal of analysis conducted in recent years of federal sentencing policy and practice.

Data from a report by the Department of Justice documented that more than a third (36%) of federal drug offenders in 1992 were “low-level” offenders, as defined by their current and prior criminal activity. A later analysis by the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that only 11% of federal drug defendants could be classified as high-level dealers, while 55% were street-level dealers or mules, and 34% were mid-level dealers.

While this information has been useful in federal policy discussions, there has been little comparable analysis conducted of drug offenders in state prison. This group is far more numerous than federal drug offenders – 251,200 in state prison compared to 68,360 in federal prison in 1999 – and so potentially represents a significant cohort for which to consider alternative policy options.

In this report we analyze data from the 1997 Survey of Inmates conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the Department of Justice and released in 2000, as well as other government sources, to paint a portrait of drug offenders in state prisons. We use the 1997 dataset because it contains detailed information from the inmate survey, conducted approximately every five years. The results of our analysis are estimates based on the survey data. We are not aware of any factors that would cause a substantial difference in the composition of the current drug offender population in state prisons. Our analysis of different measures of drug offender behavior overall indicates that there is significant potential for diverting many state prison drug offenders from incarceration.

To read the report, download the PDF below.

 
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