Crime and Law Enforcement
by Doug McVay
According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, in 2017 there were an estimated 10,554,985 arrests by law enforcement nationwide for all criminal offenses, of which 518,617 were for violent offenses and 1,249,757 arrests were for property offenses. Also that year, there were 1,632,921 arrests for drug law violations.
Most arrests for drug law violations are for possession. In 2017, possession offenses accounted for 85.4% of all drug arrests (1,394,515 out of 1,632,921 total arrests). Only 14.6%, or 238,404 arrests, in 2017 were for sale or manufacture of a drug.
US law enforcement in the US made a total of 599,282 arrests for simple possession of marijuana. Researchers in New York City found that each arrest for simple possession of marijuana took up at least 2.5 hours of police time. It must be noted that this research only applies to New York City. It is also worth noting that the state of New York decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1977. More research is needed to be certain whether a possession arrest involving other substances take up more police time than a marijuana possession arrest.
According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, nationwide in 2017 law enforcement could only clear 45.6% of all reported violent crime and 17.6% of all reported property crimes. Those figures are roughly consistent with law enforcement success over the past two decades. (An offense is counted as “cleared” when someone is arrested, charged with an offense, and turned over to the court for prosecution. It does not indicate whether anyone was actually found guilty.)
FBI figures for crime only apply to reported offenses. National crime victimization surveys performed by the US Department of Justice show that people in the US report less than 45% of the violent crimes committed each year. Only about 35% of the property crimes that are actually committed get reported to police.
At yearend 2015, the most recent year for which final data are reported, there were 1,298,159 people serving sentences in state prisons in the US, of whom 197,200 (15.2% of the total) had as their most serious offense a drug charge. Drug possession was the most serious offense for 44,700 of those people, or 3.4% of the entire state prison population.
Fourteen states and the federal Bureau of Prisons operate at over their maximum population capacity.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 21% of people in jails or in state prisons convicted of any type of offense committed their crime to get money for drugs or to obtain drugs. People convicted of property crimes were more likely than any others to report they committed their offense to get drug money.
Putting people in prison for drug offenses does not make the community safer. According to the Pew Research Center in 2018: “Pew compared state drug imprisonment rates with three important measures of drug problems — self-reported drug use (excluding marijuana), drug arrest, and overdose death — and found no statistically significant relationship between drug imprisonment and these indicators. In other words, higher rates of drug imprisonment did not translate into lower rates of drug use, arrests, or overdose deaths.”
Doug McVay is the Editor of DrugWarFacts.org and Director of Research for Common Sense for Drug Policy. On Twitter he's @DougMcVay.