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Drug War’s Impact on the US Correction System


The USA is famous for having the largest prison population in the world. The American prison system holds around 25% of the world’s convicted criminals, beating even such totalitarian countries as Russia and China combined. Yet, at the same time, this does not indicate that the USA is a more dangerous and crime-ridden place than any other country. Most of the criminals nowadays are in prison for non-violent offenses such as public disorder, gun control violations, drug trafficking, and drug abuse.

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This situation is the direct result of the so-called War on Drugs – a strategy implemented in the US since 1971. The strategy was a big failure, just like many other wars America has declared on something. This war resulted in prisons became larger, more numerous, and a burden for the country’s budget, as more and more money is needed to sustain the ever-increasing prisoner population.


The War on Drugs started largely due to public demand. The number of drugs flowing through the Mexican border was frightening. The people demanded action. President Nixon announced it in 1971, but it started to affect the prison population only at the beginning of the 1980s, with Ronald Reagan becoming the president of the US and the country becoming “tough on crime.” Ever since, the prison population started to increase dramatically, reaching its peak of over 500 prisoners per 100,000 population (Hallstone, 2016a). The prisons were struggling to accommodate such a rapid increase in population. They had to be expanded greatly in order to take care of them.

More prisoners mean more mouths to feed. Nowadays, managing and running prisons became a wealthy industry. Ever since the 1980s, the federal prison budget grew from 426 million dollars to 4,610 billion dollars, which is more than 10 times (Hallstone, 2016b). This did not go unnoticed by the corporate sector. Their involvement came in the form of private prisons. Thus, prisoner management became a business. As of 2014, the private prison sector received over 10% of all money allocated for correction expenditures.

Did the USA become a safer place with all these people gone and off the streets? According to the BJS Reports, 8 out of 10 criminals in federal prisons are convicted for non-violent crimes such as gun violations, drug use or drug trafficking, or other misdemeanors (Hallstone, 2016c). The percentage of prisoners sentenced for violent crimes or robberies has significantly decreased over the years. However, the percentage and the actual numbers are not the same things. The number of violent offenders had been steadily increasing in the last two decades. Their overall percentage decreased due to being dissolved in a greater number of prisoners that were convicted for non-violent offenses.


The USA needs to put an end to its War on Drugs and to reform its prison system. It is painfully obvious that the current policies do not amount to anything, as they only serve to increase the prison population by incarcerating people whose crimes are not that dangerous to society to warrant a long sentence. A very large amount of money is spent on keeping people who are not hardcore criminals, behind bars. The fact that a number of violent crimes, or drug-related crimes for that matter, did not decrease, proves the inefficiency of the current approach.


Hallstone, M. (2016a). Incarceration rate over time: Big jump since 1980’s.

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Hallstone, M. (2016b). Total direct corrections expenditures in US 1980-2010.

Hallstone, M. (2016c). Federal prisoners by most serious offense.

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