When Good News Is Still Bad – Drug Law Enforcement in Washington

Monday, August 16, 2010

Although the number of people being arrested and imprisoned for drug crimes in Washington state is decreasing, we still rely far too heavily on the criminal sanction for dealing with drug abuse. Only 140 people were in Washington prisons for drug crimes in 1980, while in 2008 there were more than 2,300.  And this doesn’t include people locked up in jails; for example, in 2008, the average daily population (ADP) of drug offenders in the King County Jail was 459 – 18% of total ADP.

Similarly, fewer than 6,000 people were arrested for drug crimes in 1981, while the figure was over 20,000 in 2009 (down from an all-time high of 27,909 in 2007). Even after adjusting for population changes, these increases are staggering. And they're a reminder of why we need to shift to treating drug abuse as a public health problem needing prevention programs and treatment services, not a criminal justice matter to be solved by locking people up.

Washington State Drug Arrests (Adults) 1981-2009

It’s unclear why drug abuse arrests have decreased in Washington since 2007, although law enforcement budget shortfalls have undoubtedly played a role. Of the 20,000-plus drug abuse arrests, nearly half (10,190) were for marijuana possession (figure obtained via records request). The graph was compiled from data provided by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

 Adults Incarcerated for Drug Crimes in WA State Prisons: 1980-2000

The decrease in the number of people incarcerated for drug crimes in Washington can be attributed partly to the state's "Drug Offender Sentencing Alternative" (DOSA). In 2005, this law was changed so that drug offenders could receive treatment in the community instead of in prison. To learn more about the DOSA laws, check out the Washington State Institute for Public Policy’s report on the subject. The graph was compiled from data available here and here, and only includes figures from 1980, 1990, 2001, 2008 (the trend line was interpolated).

This level of law enforcement is not cheap. It costs almost $40,000 to keep someone in prison for one year (figure based on 2001 estimate of $31,906 adjusted for inflation).  To put this in perspective, Washington state spends approximately $9,267.38 per pupil for public school each year. It’s time we adjust our priorities.