The war on drugs, incarceration, and the murder rate

Mandatory minimum drug sentences for non-violent offenders are unfair, unpopular and unaffordable, but they may have prevented many minor drug offenders from becoming homicide victims.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has decided to advise federal prosecutors to charge low-level drug offenders with less severe crimes. The number of Americans behind bars “…has more than quadrupled since 1980…The single largest driver in the increase in the federal prison population since 1998 is longer sentences for drug offenders.”

Assuming one is not particularly offended by minor drug offenses (most Americans, for example, oppose mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes), filling up the jails with these sorts of criminals seems an unfair sentence to the offender and a terrible tax burden to the rest of society.

But one hidden advantage to these sentences for drug crimes – albeit one that comes with terrible trade-offs and the incarceration of non-violent criminals that might be able to turn their lives around quickly were it not for a long prison sentence – may be that these sentences are saving lives. And not the lives of people these guys might victimize; no, the lives being saved are the lives of the minor drug offenders.

It is speculative, but not unreasonable, to suggest many of these drug offenders are coming from inner cities with rather remarkably high murder rates. And the offenders are overwhelmingly minority as well: 46% of all drug offenders convicted in federal court were Hispanic, while African Americans comprised 26% percent of all drug offenders.

The overall murder rate in local jails and state prisons is about 3 per 100,000, and this rate holds the same for inmates regardless of race. The rates are a little higher in federal prisons – averaging about 5 deaths per 100,000 over a nine year period from 2000-2008.

How does that compare to the murder rate in Washington DC? In 2011, the murder rate in DC continued it’s decade long decline down to the general murder rate of 17.5 per 100,000. The murder rates in cities like Detroit, New Orleans, St. Louis, Baltimore, Birmingham, Newark, Oakland, Cleveland, and Memphis are much, much higher than that. That’s way worse than what an inmate would face in any jail or prison.

It is also worth looking at the murder rate for, say, African Americans nationally. It is just under 18 per 100,000. The rate for African American males is almost double that: 32 per 100,000.  The overall Hispanic murder rate – about 8 per 100,000 total and about 13 per 100,000 for male Hispanics – was lower than for African Americans, but still more than double the murder rate for Hispanics and African Americans in prison.

So it is possible that one driver of the declining murder rate since the start of the war on drugs was simply that we were taking the people most likely to be murdered and placing them in a form of (totally involuntary) protective custody inside public institutions. And it is possible that one unintended consequence of rolling back mandatory sentences for non-violent drug offenders is that, for many of them, the day they are freed their odds of being killed will go up significantly.

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