The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 10, 2018

What happens when states defelonize drug possession?

As of 2010, an estimated 20 million people in the US had a current or prior felony conviction, about four times more than in 1980, and felony convictions for drug law violations are a major driver of prison admissions in many states. Recognizing the need to target limited correctional resources where they’re most effective and the growing strain on criminal justice systems, many states have enacted drug law reforms in recent years. 

Since 2014, five statesCaliforniaUtahConnecticutAlaskaand Oklahomahave reclassified drug possession offenses from a felony to a misdemeanor. People in those states can no longer be sentenced to prison for drug possession, and they will not bear the collateral consequences of a felony conviction for the rest of their lives. 

Our Reclassified report, released last week, gives a snapshot of these states’ reforms, how they were enacted, and the impacts of reclassification. These states are diverse in their political beliefs and took differing approaches to reform, but each had a broad base of bipartisan support.  

While it’s too soon to tell the full impact of reform, early outcomes and projections indicate it can be an important, cost-effective, and safe way to reduce the prison population. 

How drug felony convictions affect people and communities 

Reclassification legislation offers more than reductions in prison use and related savingsit promises a reduction in felony convictions, which carry significant consequences and costs to communities.  

Across states, people with felony convictions are subject to numerous employment restrictions and bans, impeding them from finding and keeping a job. Limiting employment opportunities contributes to high recidivism rates for people returning from incarceration and high unemployment rates for the communities to which they return. One study estimated that felony convictions cost the US as much as $87 billion in annual gross domestic product. 

All this is in the face of mounting research that incarceration isn’t an effective response to drug abuse. A Pew Charitable Trusts study found no significant relationship between rates of imprisonment for drug offenses and rates of drug use, overdose deaths, or drug arrests.  

Meanwhile, research suggests that community-based treatments produce better public safety results for drug abuse compared with incarceration 

Where other states stand 

Treatment of drug possession convictions varies widely across states, as does the number of people incarcerated for drug possession.  

In Texas (PDF)nearly a quarter of prison admissions were for drug possession; in fact, the state sends more people to prison for drug offenses than most states send for all offenses combined.  

If Texas enacted reforms to eliminate all future prison admissions for drug possessions, holding all else equal, an estimated 12,668 fewer people would be in prison by 2025 (a 9 percent reduction). That change alone could save the state $33.7 million over 10 years. 

Texas is not alone. Urban Institute analysis shows that eliminating new admissions for drug possession offenses by 2025 could result in significant prison population reductions across states, leading to an estimated 

  • more than 7 percent decline in Mississippi, and $3 million in savings. 

The work is already under way in some statesIn November, Ohio voters will decide on State Issue 1, which, if enacted, would reclassify all simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. The ballot initiative calls for a prohibition against jail time for obtaining, possessing, or using drugs, except in the case of three convictions within two years.  

It also makes these changes retroactive, meaning that people serving time for drug possession felonies can have their case reconsidered and reduced to a misdemeanor conviction, and any future savings from the change must be redirected to rehabilitation and crime victim funds. 

What’s happening in your state? 

To see how reducing drug possession admissions could affect the prison population in your state and examine what cost savings could result, explore the Prison Population Forecaster 

If you want to learn more about what’s driving incarceration in your state and what a blueprint for meaningful reductions would look like, visit the American Civil Liberties Union’s 50-state blueprints to see a state-by-state analysis of how to reduce imprisonment 50 percent by 2025. 

Reclassifying drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor is just one step states can take to reduce incarceration and target resources more effectively. But evidence shows it could make a substantial impactand early results from the states leading the way suggest it can be done effectively and safely. 

Photo by Hero Images/Getty Images.

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