Sending more people to prison for drug offenses won't have an effect on drug use and deaths, according to a new analysis released this week.
Researchers from the Pew Charitable Trusts crunched state-by-state data on drug imprisonment, drug use, overdoses and drug arrests and found no evidence that they affected one another.
That lack of a pattern shows the flaw in a central philosophy in the war on drugs: That doling out harsh penalties makes people less inclined to use drugs or join the drug trade, said Adam Gelb, director of Pew's public safety performance project, which works to reform state-level drug policies.
"There seems to be this assumption that tougher penalties will send a stronger message and deter people from involvement with drugs. This is not borne out by the data," Gelb said.
He included the entire analysis in a letter Monday to Chris Christie, who is both governor of New Jersey and head of President Donald Trump's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.
The commission held its first public meeting on Friday. It is responsible for coming up with a plan to help the federal government tackle an addiction crisis that killed more than 50,000 people last year. The growing number of overdoses is being driven by runaway rates of addiction to prescription painkillers and heroin, researchers say.
Meanwhile at the Justice Department, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is carving out his own approach — focused on punishment.
He issued a memo to federal prosecutors in May ordering them to seek the maximum punishment for drug offenses, a return to harsh policies that predate former President Barack Obama.
Pew's study was relatively simple: gather data from each state in four categories: incarceration of drug offenders, overdose deaths, drug arrests and drug use. The latest year for which all the data was available was 2014.
The theory, Gelb said, was that if deterrence worked, the states with the highest incarceration rates would have lower rates of drug use.
But that's not what they found.
For example, Louisiana, the state with the highest incarceration rate, was in the middle of the pack on overdoses, drug arrests and drug use. Massachusetts, with the lowest incarceration rate, was toward the bottom in arrests and use, but near the top in overdoses. West Virginia, with the highest overdose rate, was 21st in incarcerations. And Colorado, with the highest rate of drug use, was 37th in incarcerations.
Gelb said he hoped the commission and other policy makers would use it to chart their course forward.
"This is fresh data that should inform the important conversation happening in Washington and around the country about what the most effective strategies are for combatting the rise in opioid addiction and other substance abuse," Gelb said.