TURES COLUMN: Did the ‘War On Drugs’ reduce crime in the U.S.?

Published 11:30 am Friday, December 10, 2021

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All semester, my undergraduate students have been researching the War on Drugs, to see if several get-tough measures, ranging from convictions to long sentences, have any impact upon a variety of crime rate measures for violent crime rates, murder rates and property crime rates.

“Beginning in the 1970s, the longest war in the history of the United States has been undisputedly its War on Drugs. For as long as the legal battles have been waged against drug users and distributors, the question of its effectiveness has also been in question. With millions across the country being locked away for lifetimes, one question has been left unasked and unanswered; what affect does the enhanced drug sentencing of the War on Drugs have on other crimes?” wrote Andrew Cunningham.

“We sought to both ask and answer this question with our undergraduate research, wherein we researched crime rate and sentencing data from all 50 states and six territories of the United States and compared them against each other to see what impact drug related crime rates and sentencing have on violent crime rates and sentencing, as well as how the state politics fit into the picture. Additionally, we investigated any impact that sentencing of different types of crime had on other types of crime, regardless of their connection to drug offenses. Ultimately, our research was conducted in an effort to observe the question of the unintended consequences of America’s longest conflict.”

Students in my American Judicial Institutions class (Thomas Bird, Kristina Calixto, Benjamin Hays, Jacob Jeffords, Abbey Reese, Bryant Sanchez, Jake Thrailkill and Karson Troth) gathered data on the length of drug sentences by state, from the U.S. Sentencing Commission and detox.net.

From the latter source, they uncovered the numbers showing the percentage of those accused of drug trafficking by state who are convicted, as well as those sentenced to prison for their crimes. And from the FBI, they collected data on all three crime rate measures by state, and in some cases, some territories.

From my research methods class, LaGrange College undergraduates Andrew Cunningham, Chase Davis, DeQueze Fryer, Shedrick Lindsey, Taren McGhee, Mason McLaughlin, Erik Moran, Brennan Oates, Karson Troth and Jonathan Williams ran the statistics to look for relationships between the variables. They discovered that there is no significant correlation between the length of drug conviction prison sentences, as well as the percentage of drug crime guilty pleas (by state) and violent crime rates, murder rates and property crime rates, by states. 

The exception is where an increase in the percentage of those convicted of drug trafficking go to prison, it actually leads to an increase in the property crime rate in a state. This important information can be used to see if the “War on Drugs” is actually effective in lowering a variety of crime rates in a state.  And our evidence shows that in recent years, it isn’t helping much.

The students researched a number of articles and books that claimed the “War on Drugs” was necessary, or wasn’t working. But rather than simply cite others’ evidence, they went out and gathered the data themselves, tested it with our statistics packages, and found some answers. 

Perhaps an additional “side effect” to their research is the development of skills these students learned to test future political, economic and social arguments, rather than accept other articles.