Are most prisoners really in there for drug offenses?

by | May 15, 2015 | Drug Charges

Despite the earnest efforts of anti-drug activists, law enforcement officers and prosecutors, drug use and sales continue to be problems in the United States. At the same time, the U.S. has more people behind bars per capita than any other nation on earth by a pretty wide margin. Keeping as many people in prison as America does, however, is costly. Not only does it cost a tremendous amount to incarcerate, guard, monitor, feed, clothe and house that many people; but it’s also costly in human terms.

Some people hold the War on Drugs directly responsible for the huge growth in U.S. incarceration rates. Is that true? Just how many people are actually behind bars because of drug crimes?

According to 2015 statistics from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, almost half of federal prisoners are there for drug offenses, and that estimate might even be low. According to, as of September 2013, fully 51 percent of the entire population in federal prison, (just over 98,000 inmates) was serving time for drug possession, sales, trafficking or another drug offense.

Moreover, the percentage of federal prisoners who have committed drug crimes has been growing steadily since 1970. Back then, only 16 percent of federal prisoners were there for drug-related offenses.

The percentage isn’t quite as high in state prisons, but it’s still surprising. In 2012, there were more than 210,000 inmates behind bars for state drug offenses — 16 percent of all inmates. The rates are even higher amongst women, with 25 percent of state female prisoners doing time for drug-related offenses.

What does that all add up to? Around a quarter of all prisoners in the U.S. are there because of the War on Drugs.

These numbers are very telling. While some of these offenders might need to be behind bars, a huge number of them have been convicted of low-level offenses. Undoubtedly, still others were convicted for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

With so many people behind bars for drug offenses, many prisons face overcrowding problems. In some cases, many people wonder if providing treatment for more drug offenders — even those with multiple drug convictions — would be better than putting them behind bars.