Wasting Human Capital in Our Drug Prohibition Regime

In an AEI article earlier this year the author, an economist, pointed out that over the 50 years from 1965 to 2015, the number of prime-age unemployed men who were not even looking for work grew three times faster than the overall workforce. Of the 23 most developed economies in the world, the only country with more prime age guys (25 to 54) not working or looking for work than the U.S., is…wait for it…Italy.  Glory be, aren’t we special. More guys in America work than in at least one other country.

To understand this, we need to look back to 1970. In that year the percentage of potential working men who weren’t even looking for work was about 6% of all in that prime age group, but their number ratcheted up to a more than double 14. 6% by 2016.

Was it just a coincidence that the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and the “war on drugs” happened in the same year the work force decline started to accelerate? There are various causes for the declining work force, but one of them must certainly be our drug policy.

Prime age men began dropping out of the world of work at an increased rate practically the day the war on drugs started and our prison population grew and grew and grew. At over 2 million, our prisons, not coincidentally, hold more people than any other country, including Italy. Prohibitionists will be quick to tell you the ratio of drug crime prisoners to others is small. But, that’s far from the whole story.

Many convicts are there for property crimes committed to buy drugs. Those convictions don’t show up in the drug crime stats.

What happens when a young man with a drug problem goes to jail and upon release can’t find a job? If he has a drug problem he will commit more crimes to be able to afford them. Poverty promotes drug use by making life more bearable. Arrested and incarcerated again he will serve his time, be released and return to the only life he knows.

Now add another reality. In a study reported in Criminology the researchers found a spike has occurred in the number of prison inmates over 40, an age well within prime working age. Back in the early seventies only about 16% of our nation’s prison population were 40 or older. Thirty years later in 2004, a full third of that population were at least 40. Though the average age has leveled off, to quote one of the researchers, “People are getting arrested and sentenced to prison at a higher rate in their 30s, 40s and 50s than they used to.”

Drug dealing is a common way to help pay for a drug habit, but the so called acquisitive crimes offer the most opportunity. You can’t deal drugs if you don’t have the money and connections to buy an inventory. Armed robbery is riskier, but it pays well—until you get caught. Then, of course, there’s pimping, purse snatching, carjacking, burglary and on and on.

A paper published by Brookings shows that 1 in 3 incarcerations are drug related, but not far behind are the property crimes, both violent and non-violent. Well over half our prison population are there for one or the other–a drug crime, or a property crime. Clearly, a large percentage of those non-drug offenses were committed by a guy who needed money because of a drug habit.  People who argue the drug laws are not why we jail so many people, are ignoring at least half the picture.

And those incarcerated are not kept long.  Just long enough to wreck their employment chances. According to Brookings, the median prison term for the non-violent offenders is about 14 months.   That means just as many stay for fewer than for more than 14 months. Add a little violence to the offense and you’ll probably stay 3 years. The median for murder is about 12 years. What you have then is a whole lot of men (women too, but this post is about able bodied men) addicted to drugs who can’t get jobs and have given up trying, because they have a criminal record. Many tens of thousands are trapped in a vicious circle of addiction, unemployment, crime, return to prison, release–and repeat.

It’s time we reform our system and stop jailing people with addiction to drugs. They have a disorder of the self-control center of the brain and need help. Vengeful punishment is a fool’s game–wasting human capital and weakening the national economy to the detriment of us all.

© All rights reserved to Dave Finch 8/19/2017

For an intelligent reform idea visit Reform Drug Policy Project.

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