Drugs and Prison Overcrowding


Following the official initiation of the “war on drugs” campaign during the late 1980s, by former United States president George H. W. Bush, along with compulsory laws of sentencing offenders, this has resulting in the United States turning into the number one jailer, on a global scale (Fellner, 2000).

Even as the United States accounts for a partly 5 percent of the entire population in the world, nevertheless the prisons in the U. S. accommodates a quarter (25 percent) of all the prisoners that are to be found here (Karp, 2000).

At the same time as politicians, media analysts and academicians alike deliberate on the implication of such a fact, it is also becoming evidently clear that the mushrooming population of prisons in the United States is slowly turning into a problem for both the state as well as the federal detention facilities (Fellner, 2000).

While a majority of the concur that overcrowding in prisons presents the United States with an urgent problem that calls for a quick addressing, they however fail to agree in principle, over the most effective way that they can overcome this problem. 42.6 percent of all the drug arrests made in the Illinois state were for marijuana offenders, in effect translating into a 79 percent growth in terms of the drug-related arrests that were made during the 1990 (Karp, 2000).

Jails and prisons in the United States have realized an 1100 percent rise with respect to drug offenders, since the 1980s. Almost 6 out of every 10 individuals that are to be found in state prisons, incarcerated fro drug-related offences are without any prior violent history, or even drug selling activity of the higher-level (Karp, 2000).

Prison overcrowding and the impact the “war on drugs” has had on the correctional organizations in Illinois

25 years after its inception, “war on drugs” continues to play a significant role in as far as the increase in the number of prisoners in the United States jails are concerned, in effect causing overcrowding. In addition, this “war on drugs” has left an impact on all the different elements of the United States’ criminal justice system and by extension, the American society.

In a bid to offer a response to the drug abuse problem, drug policies at the national level lappers to have stress more on the punishment of the offenders, as opposed to offering treatment to them. In Illinois, almost 69 percent of the state’s inmates have been incarcerated for alcohol or drug related crimes (Prison overcrowding pathfinder, 2007).

There are a number of significant sign of the impact that the “war on drugs” has had on the communities in the United States.

To start with, there has been a three fold-increase in terms of the drug-related arrests that have been made over the last 25 years, to reach a total of 1.8 million arrests, at the end of 2005 (Prison overcrowding pathfinder, 2007). Indeed, drug arrests have been seen to have skyrocketed in Illinois, ever since the campaign on “war on drugs” started, some 25 years ago.

According to The Chicago Reporter (2007), the number of prisoners at the various Illinois-based prison facilities stood at 27,608. Almost 20 years later, in 1999, this figure has increased dramatically, to stand at 106,609. The Chicago Reporter (2007) further notes that Cook County in particular made some 68,180 arrests that were drug-related, in 1999.

This was a 34 percent representation of the entire arrests that were made in the out, in that year. On the other hand, Illinois accounted for a massive 64 percent of all the arrests that were made in the whole of the United States (The Chicago Reporter, 2007).

According to Human Rights Watch (2000), the exceptional increase with regard to the prisons industry in the United States may be said to have especially been fuelled by an increase in the number of penalties to offenders that are related top drugs.

Human Rights watch further notes that there seems to be a lot of emphasis on the enforcement of the law, as opposed to the prevention of substance abuse, alongside treatment services for drugs offenders. In line with this, Street (2001) has noted that there has been a tripling effect in terms of incarcerations that are linked to drugs, ever since the 1980s.

Street further opines that as a result of this, the population of inmates in the various correction facilities in Illinois has increase massively, by more than 266 percent, following the initiation of the “war on drugs” campaign. Illinois state was ranked at position three nationwide, in 1996, in terms of the number of incarcerations related to drugs that the state handled, when compared with the rest of the states (The Chicago reporter, 2007). The result of this is that since then, the state has had to build some 20 additional correctional centers (Street, 2001).

During the mid-1980s, the state of Illinois initiated a justice policy for juveniles, with the aim of lowering illegal drugs sale and consumption.

By the end of the 1980s, in 1989, the Illinois legislature passed tow bills that spelt out that those youths between the ages of 15 and 16 years, and who had been charged with the sale of drugs within a distance of 1,000 feet of either a housing development for the public, or a school, automatically qualified to receive prosecution, as an adult.

Workable solutions

As can be seen, the “war on drugs” has not been very successful. There is therefore a need to come up with workable and effective solutions.

Proponents of the creations of additional prisons and tough sentencing are also of the opinion that lengthy and compulsory sentences, along with the “war on drugs” has acted to put behind bars over 500,000 drug offenders who are otherwise nonviolent. What this means is that the prison facilities in the United States continues to experience unnecessary strain (Karp, 2000).

Another option, other than the incarcerations of drug offenders could be a mandatory treatment programs for alcohol or drug offenders, to reduce the rise in the population of prisoners. There is also the need for the prioritization of resources. Therefore, the use of drugs by say, children, should take precedent, as opposed to adults using drugs. Higher priority should be given to harder drugs, as opposed to say, marijuana.

Through the concept of harm reduction, the local authority should form a partnership with the members of the community to reduce possible harm that they may get from sale and consumptions of drugs. This also involves working hand-in hand with drug addicts, to help them kick-off the habit (Karp, 2000), as opposed to jailing them.

As such, the issue of counseling and therapeutic sessions should be given priority here, as opposed to the arresting and the consequent incarceration of the drug offenders. Moreover, those offenders who have already been imprisoned as a result of drug-related offences need also to be introduced to counseling sessions, even in prison, as a way of reforming before their jail term ends.


Fellner, J. (2000). Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparity in the War on Drugs. New York, New York: Sage.

Human Rights Watch. (2000) ” The Impact of the War on Drugs on U.S. Incarceration.” United States-Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs.

Karp, S. (2000). “State Drug Law Hits City Teens, Minorities.” The Chicago Reporter, May, 2000.

Prison overcrowding pathfinder (2007). Prison Overcrowding research guide.

Street, P. (2001). (2001) The Color and Geography of Prison Growth in Illinois. Chicago Urban League

The Chicago Reporter (2007). Drug Arrests Skyrocket in Cook County, Illinois.

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