War on Drugs and Prison Overcrowding

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, as First Lady Nancy Reagan boldly stood up and challenged the children of America to “Just Say No” to drugs, adults were flocking to movie theaters by the millions to view films like “Scarface” and sitting in front of their televisions in the tens of millions to watch programs like “Miami Vice”, both of which seemed to glorify the use and trafficking of illegal drugs.

In the midst of all of this, states such as Florida, long having served as a hub for drug distribution and abuse because of its geographic location which gives easy access to imported narcotics, began to see in ever-increasing numbers, individuals who were introduced to the criminal justice system because of having been arrested for possessing, abusing, or selling drugs. All of this having the net affects of the proliferation of what has come to be known as “The War on Drugs”, a form of action to reinforce the talk of Nancy Reagan many years before.

With all of this in mind, this paper will explore the impact that “The War on Drugs” has had on prison overcrowding in Florida, as well as workable solutions to the problem. Impact That “The War on Drugs” Has Had on Prison Overcrowding in Florida To truly understand the relationship between drugs and prison populations in Florida, it is necessary to take a closer look at both the level of overcrowding in Florida prisons present day and the contribution that drug offenders have made to increasing the Florida prison population overall.

Regarding the number of drug offenders in Florida prisons, reliable sources cite that over 55% of those imprisoned in the Florida state correctional system have been placed there as a result of drug offenses, ranging from use/possession, to intent to deliver, sales and so forth (Florida Department of Corrections, 2007). Therefore, one can see that drug offenders make up the majority of Florida prisoners.

This statistic, while shocking, would not be as significant in regard to prison populations if other statistics did not indicate that Florida prisons are brimming to a near overflow with inmates in the present day, as is shown in the following chart, which shows recent population numbers: FLORIDA PRISON POPULATIONS, JAN-JUNE 2007 (Florida Department of Corrections, 2007) Based on the fact that drug offenders are the majority of the Florida prison population, and that population is ready to explode, the logic dictates that “The War on Drugs” has had a major affect on correctional organizations in Florida.

Therefore, the question of why this has happened also deserves an answer. The seemingly easy answer would be that more people are getting involved in drugs from all angles of the drug scene; this may very well be true, but there are other, more compelling explanations also. First, the issue of the criminalization of drugs, and the penalties assigned for drug crimes plays a role. In years past, drug advocates made the claim that the failure to legalize drugs is the reason that so many people involved in drugs are branded criminals and have turned the United States into a nation of prisoners.

True, tougher drug laws have led to the boom in US prison populations, but the legalization of drugs is not the answer to this problem (Insight on the News, 2003). Many of the people who find themselves behind bars under the broad category of drug offenses are not arrested simply because of drug involvement itself, but also because of the crimes they commit while under the influence of drugs or in the pursuit of drugs themselves or the money to pay for them (Cohen, 2005) such as murder, theft, property damage, rape, assault and the like.

Because of this, a clear message emerges- because drugs are causing prison overcrowding, a public menace and the other associated ills, workable solutions not to prison overcrowding, but the root cause of prison overcrowding- illegal drugs needs to be explored, and legalization is not the answer. Workable Solutions to the Problem All is not hopeless in this situation; there are options that Florida, and the other states facing prison overcrowding due to “The War on Drugs” can put in place as effective remedies:

? DRUG TREATMENT AND MONITORING FOR NON VIOLENT OFFENDERS-As a general statement, many of the drug offenders nationwide are not violent offenders, but rather drug abusers whose poor judgment and choices landed them in the hands of law enforcement ( Holden-Rhodes, 1997). For these offenders, a combination of drug treatment programs and house arrest with monitoring of all activities and progress in treatment, as well as verification that drugs are not being used by the “inmate” can alleviate prison overcrowding and affords a chance for freedom from drugs for the individual.

As demand for drugs goes down, theoretically, so too would the sale of drugs, making less arrests necessary and easing prison conditions. Statistically, if the average population of Florida prisons is around 90,000 inmates, and about 60,000 of those are drug offenders, even a 10% reduction in drug offenders behind bars would relieve the correctional system of 6,000 inmates monthly, reducing crowding and saving millions of dollars monthly as well.

? SUBSTANCE ABUSE PREVENTION INSIDE OF PRISONS- Sources cite that many people are introduced to drugs after going to prison, and once released, these drug addicted people add to the size of “The War on Drugs” (Early, 1996). Therefore, substance abuse prevention within Florida prisons needs to occur over the long-term. With 90,000 inmates in Florida prisons, a small percentage of substance abuse prevention inside of prisons will likely result in tens of thousands fewer substance abusers released into society in Florida alone.

? LEGALIZATION- While the research has indicated that legalization is not the solution to the drug problem (Insight on the News, 2003), for the sake of offering the solution, if drugs were legalized, the first glance would indicate that Florida would cut prison populations in half instantly—before accounting for the likely surge in crime as drug abuse increases because of legalization, of course. Conclusion There are no easy answers in this case; “The War on Drugs”, for all of its detractors, needs to continue.Therefore, in closing, the best that we can hope for in the present are practical solutions that will result in a better future.


Cohen, M. A. (2005). The Costs of Crime and Justice. New York: Routledge. Critics Scapegoat the Antidrug Laws; Advocates Pushing for Decriminalization of Drug Use Blame the War on Drugs for Creating an ‘Incarceration Nation. ‘ but a Hard Look at the Facts Proves Otherwise. (2003, November 10). Insight on the News 33.

Early, K. E. (Ed. ). (1996). Drug Treatment behind Bars: Prison-Based Strategies for Change. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. Florida Department of Corrections (2007). Trends in Prison Admission. Retrieved August 13, 2007 from the World Wide Web: http://www. dc. state. fl. us/pub/pop/monthly/index. html#pop. Holden-Rhodes, J. F. (1997). Sharing the Secrets: Open Source Intelligence and the War on Drugs. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.