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Sentencing By State


The U.S. currently represents roughly 4 percent of the world’s total population and 22 percent of world’s incarcerated population. The number of people imprisoned in the U.S. is three times that of the European average. During the Obama administration, however, that number fell for the first time since President Jimmy Carter.

Former President Barack Obama hoped to end disparities in drug sentencing laws or even to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences entirely in favor of treatment over prosecution. But those changes may be coming to an end. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in May 2017 that the federal court would be seeking the harshest sentences for even low-level drug offenses – effectively ending the era of reform.

To understand what these changes mean for the millions of Americans with substance use disorders and how new policy changes could impact recent trends, we studied the latest data from the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) on 2016 federal incarceration statistics. From the states with the most convictions to the substances responsible for the highest number of offenses, continue reading to learn more about an America behind bars.


The Rate of Drug-Related Sentences

Across the country, 1 in 5 incarcerated people are imprisoned based on nonviolent drug-related charges. While drug crimes typically represent smaller percentages of state and local prison systems, drug charges equate to nearly half of all federal convictions.

In Arizona – which ranked second in the nation for drug overdose-related deaths in 2016 – state sentencing soared to nearly 37 federal drug-related sentences for every 100,000 citizens, or 5.7 times higher than the national average. Despite having the highest federal drug-related conviction rate, heroin and prescription drug overdoses continue to rise.

New Mexico ranked second for the highest number of drug-related sentences. The state’s close proximity to Mexico is one of the biggest causes for concern in relation to drug crimes. Mexico’s drug cartels funnel billions of dollars worth of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana into the U.S. – often through New Mexico. In fact, law enforcement officials estimate that between 40 and 60 percent of all illegal drugs in the U.S. are controlled by one Mexican drug cartel.

In Vermont, 104 people died from drug overdoses in 2016. The state also sentenced 21 people for every 100,000 residents for drug-related crimes, the third highest rate in the country.


Permutations in Imprisonment

Here you can see shifts in federal drug-related sentencing across the U.S. over the last 20 years. While federal criminal prosecution (including drug-related charges) may be at a 20-year low, certain states have experienced an increase in drug-related convictions since 1997. In 2016, Idaho and North Dakota drug-related sentences were more than three times higher than in 1997, and in Tennessee and Arizona, rates were between two and three times higher.

However, across most of the country, there has been a general decline in drug-related sentencing rates since 1997.

In November 2016, former President Barack Obama said he believed in treating marijuana as “a public-health issue,” the same way tobacco or alcohol is approached. That same year, he signed a bill appropriating $1 billion to combat the growing opioid and heroin epidemic, which focused on working through public health programs rather than the justice system. While the full reaching effect of these efforts may still be unknown, there’s no question Obama’s approach to drug crimes (in addition to the federal rate of conviction) was vastly different than in years past.


Developments in Drug-Related Sentencing


Across the U.S., the prescription opioid crisis is earning headlines for both its financial and emotional impact on American communities, but two drugs specifically have seen a marked rise since 2010 in the number of federal drug-related sentences: methamphetamine and heroin.

Drug sentences involving heroin doubled between 2007 and 2016, from 4.4 to 8.6 charges per 1 million U.S. residents. The proportion of federal sentences related to heroin is now at a 20-year high. In 1997, they accounted for 9.7 percent of all drug-related convictions. In 2016, they represented 13.1 percent, clustered in the Northeast and neighboring Midwest states. To put that rise into context: 10 years ago, there were no states where heroin was the most prevalent drug (regarding sentencing). In 2016, there were 12 states where heroin dominated, and five were in the Northeast.

In 2016, Delaware had the highest percentage of federal sentences involving heroin, at 54.2 percent, followed by West Virginia (51.2 percent), Vermont (50.4 percent), Ohio (50.1 percent), and Rhode Island (47.1 percent) – above the national average of 13.1 percent.

Since 2002, heroin deaths have increased by 533 percent, and the number of Americans using heroin has increased by 135 percent. In 2016, the Senate passed bipartisan legislation aimed at granting state’s funding to support addiction treatment, prevention, and education initiatives, in addition to expanding the availability of a drug that reverses the immediate effects of overdosing. Described as a “victory” for families dealing with substance use disorders, efforts like this mark a shift away from punishing drug misuse and working toward treatment and care.

Like heroin, the negative impact (and conviction rate) for methamphetamine has also risen in recent years. In some states, particularly in rural areas, the use of meth increased by as much as 250 percent since 2011. While judicial punishment and incarceration have increased for meth-related crimes, from 6.9 convictions per 1 million residents in 1997 to 20.2 convictions in 2016, experts have pointed out that these efforts do little to curb the overall demand for methamphetamine. In 2016, the states where meth convictions were highest relative to all drug-related sentences were in the West and Midwest regions, including Montana, where 92 percent of drug convictions involved meth, South Dakota (88.4 percent), North Dakota (86.8 percent), and Wyoming (83.5 percent).


Regional Drug-Related Sentencing


Across the country, the illicit substances that most impact communities can vary significantly. While heroin-related offenses represented more than 50 percent of all drug offenses in Delaware in 2016, they accounted for less than 5 percent of sentences in South Dakota. Marijuana, which as of this writing is legal in various capacities in 29 states and Washington, D.C., accounted for nearly three-quarters of drug-related offenses in Arizona and roughly half in New Mexico.

In the Northeast, heroin-related offenses accounted for roughly a quarter to half of drug-related sentences in every state. In Vermont, nearly half of all accidental (excluding suicide) opioid-related fatalities were attributed to heroin or fentanyl. As drug enforcement officials continued to crack down on heroin use in Vermont, crack usage rates began to surge in 2016 – a tactic referred to as the balloon effect, where an overemphasis on one drug can lead both dealers and consumers to shift their attention to another substance.


How Drug-Related Sentencing Trends Change


These maps help illuminate how the rate of federal drug-related sentences can shift from region to region and even from state to state. The Midwest was the most widely impacted region in response to methamphetamine, while certain areas of the North and Southeast saw less than 1 percent of all federal drug-related sentences related to meth. In contrast, between 39 and 54 percent of federal convictions in the Northeast were related to heroin.

Some states (like Colorado) represented complete outliers concerning regional trends. The West was largely unaffected by cocaine-related federal offenses in 2016, though in Colorado, cocaine represented 31.7 percent of all federal convictions that year. While recreational marijuana use has been legalized in Colorado, researchers point to a sharp increase in cocaine use (particularly among younger Americans) and the need for better drug education and training to help prevent substance misuse. Few Americans elsewhere in the country (except in Washington, D.C., and New Hampshire) were sentenced for drug-related crimes associated with cocaine more than residents in Colorado.


Trends in Drug Trafficking-Related Incarceration


The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has established federal trafficking penalties – or mandatory minimum sentences – based on the crime and substance associated with the offense. In 2013, the Justice Department and Attorney General Eric Holder enacted a policy designed to help avoid mandatory minimum sentences for low-level nonviolent drug offenders on the basis that excessive incarceration has been “ineffective and unsustainable” in the war on drugs. Experts have pointed out that mandatory minimum sentences have led to bloated (and expensive) federal prison populations, in addition to racial disparities in the percentage of Americans behind bars for drug-related crimes.

Five million children in the U.S. have a parent in prison for drug-related crimes, including 1 in 9 African-American children. When released, formerly incarcerated Americans earn 10 to 40 percent less than people without criminal records and similar work experience. When the then-Attorney General John Ashcroft urged lawmakers in 2003 to convict mandatory minimums whenever possible, the federal prison population grew by 48,000 Americans in just 10 years. Recently appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions has also indicated that he wants to bring mandatory minimums back, despite criticism that they may be cruel and ineffective.

Since 2006, the average sentence length for federal drug trafficking convictions has been in decline. In 2016, it fell to a 20-year low of 71 months (5.9 years). The average sentence length for a simple possession offense has also decreased in the last two decades, from a high of 18.9 months in 2008 to five months today.

Changing the Narrative

Across America, the number of people dying from drug-related overdoses is rising faster than ever. Research has shown the threat of mandatory minimum sentences does little to deter drug-related crimes, and being involved in the justice system may not even successfully rehabilitate Americans who’ve become dependent. In reality, the use of illicit substances changes how the brain functions, which can cause people who misuse them to continue doing so despite health, social, legal, and life-threatening consequences.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, there is always another choice. Our tools and resources can provide you with the information you need to find help. To learn more, visit us at


Sentencing reports from the United States Sentencing Commission spanning from 1997 to 2016 were analyzed to reveal trends in federal drug-related sentences.The commission gathers statistics on criminal cases that a defendant pleads guilty to or is found guilty of, as well as statistics for those sentenced for committing a felony or Class A misdemeanor.

In certain circumstances, a person can account for multiple “cases” and thus may be counted twice in the data. If there are multiple offenders for an offense (such as in a conspiracy case), each person sentenced counts as an individual case. The commission only collects data on sentences in federal court. The numbers do not include people who were arrested but not convicted. Petty offenses, such as Class B and C misdemeanors, were not included in the commission’s data, as they are not subject to the guidelines.

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