The Prison Problem: Harsh Sentences for Drug Users

This past February, Brandon Stanton, owner of the famous blog, Humans of New York, wrote on stories of inmates around the Northeastern United States.  Many of the inmates shared their story about how they were imprisoned due to drug-related charges.  One mother was serving her fifth sentence for her methamphetamine addiction while a father was serving a life sentence for distributing crack cocaine.  The recurring theme in prison sentencing for drug use and dealing was the hope for a better life.  For many prisoners, selling drugs was seen as the only way to survive a society with little social and economic mobility.  While there should be consequences for breaking the law, the amount of low-income minorities tempted by high profits as well as the complexities of drug addiction should also be taken into consideration.

According to the Bureau of Prisons roughly half of Americans in federal prison are incarcerated on drug-related offenses.  The high incarceration rate is largely due to America’s war on drugs, or the push for federal drug control and abolishment of recreational drug use.  During Ronald Reagan’s presidency from 1981-1989, the amount of people imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses skyrocketed.  In 1980 around 50,000 Americans were imprisoned for drug offenses, but grew to over 400,000 Americans by 1997 (“A brief,” 2016).  Anti-drug campaigns set forth an unrealistic, no tolerance attitude and neglected to help those addicted.  While the attitude in society is starting to acknowledge that treatment is crucial to tackling America’s drug issue, we are far from providing the treatment necessary.  The U.S. still follows the Mandatory minimum sentencing structure that was put into place throughout the 1980’s (“Federal Mandatory”).  This outdated model restricts those addicted from receiving treatment and prevents the low-income prisoners from becoming a productive member of society by keeping them imprisoned for such a long time.

In order to effectively treat addiction and to prevent the illegal distribution of drugs many steps should be implemented, as suggested by a survey by National Institute on Drug Abuse which is part of the National Institutes of Health. First, proper treatment centers should be readily available for those arrested for illegal drug use and those seeking help on their own. Simply imprisoning someone for twenty years does not ensure that they have conquered their addiction. Secondly, better economic opportunity among the lower class needs to be ensured.  Equal opportunity to education and employment, no matter the person’s race or income, is crucial in preventing the illegal distribution of drugs. Other feasible methods to advance, even while living in the poorest neighborhoods in America decrease the amount of minorities imprisoned, such as those highlighted in Stanton’s blog, Humans of New York. Meanwhile, if illegal drugs are less available, this could help reduce the impact of addiction and help those struggling to receive treatment rather, instead of them being criminalized.  


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NIDA Survey Shows Lack of Substance Abuse Treatment Options for Offenders. (2007, April 2). Retrieved October 16, 2016, from

Offenses. (2016, August 27). Retrieved October 9, 2016, from

What are mandatory minimums. (n.d.). Retrieved from


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