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Friday, August 28, 2015

Do Drugs Cause Violence?

The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to reduce sentences for most federal drug offenders retroactively, potentially allowing 46,000 inmates to obtain slightly shorter sentences by the end of this year.  Given that there are over 6 million Americans under supervision in state and federal prisons and jails, this is a positive step, but it certainly is not going to be the end of U.S. mass incarceration. And yet, even this small step forward has received opposition.  The National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys opposes this change, calling it a “grave danger to public safety.”   And current pending legislation like the Smarter Sentencing Act, which aims to reduce draconian drug sentences by half, face serious opposition.  In recent testimony before Congress, the DEA asserted that drug trafficking poses serious threats due to the violence that accompanies it, and another commentator testified that simply releasing 1% of federal prisoners would lead to over 32,000 more murders, rapes, and other violent crimes.  The problems with these arguments are that they are flat out wrong.  The evidence simply does not support that drug defendants are violent people. 

The argument that drug defendants are violent conflicts with studies, like my work with economist Frank McIntyre, that shows that drug defendants are the safest defendants to release before trial.  Our study of over 100,000 felony defendants over fifteen years showed that of all of the felons released before trial, those charged with selling or possessing drugs were the least likely to commit a violent crime.  In fact, they were as safe to release as those brought in on driving related crimes.

Our study is not the only one that shows that most drug defendants are not violent. There is no proof that illegal drugs pharmacologically cause violence. Though certainly drug addicts commit more crimes than nondrug users, they commit them at low rates, and the connection between drugs and violent crime is complex and inconclusive.  In fact, no researchers have been able to prove that drugs have a direct influence on violence, and one study actually shows that drug users are more likely to reduce violent behavior after using drugs. Indeed, studies have pointed out that forces of violence are not caused by drugs but may come from economic hardship, poor intellectual capacity, an aggressive temperament, or other personality disorders. Interestingly, a link between alcohol and violence has much more support in data than a link between drugs and violence. And tobacco is even more significantly linked to crime than alcohol or drugs. A 1997 survey of prisoners also indicated only 12% of federal drug offenders were ever convicted of a violent crime. And against common perception, prisoners incarcerated for violent offences do not generally commit violent crimes for drug money. In 2002, only 5% of violent and public order offenders claimed to have committed their crimes for drug money. Even without protection of the state, illegal drug markets generally run without violence. For instance, Mexico has trafficked drugs for a century but has only seen an extreme rise in violence within the last decade.

So if there is not much evidence that drugs create violence, why do we all believe it?  Simply blame it on the War on Drugs.  In 1986, drug use was viewed as the most important problem facing the nation by only 3% of the population, but that number climbed to 64% in 1989. And during this same period drug use actually declined in America.  What happened though is that U.S. Presidents “got tough” and blamed drug use for America’s problems. With this rhetoric and legislative backing, prison rates climbed quickly and between 1981 and 1990, drug defendants went from 6% to nearly 25% of the state prison population, and from 25% to 60% of the overall federal inmate population.

  Though the drug-violence link lacks proper support, it is rarely challenged and forms the backbone of U.S. drug policy.  Countless cases and statutes continue to rely on this link to justify trumped up sentences. Courts have asserted, without support, that drug addicts need to commit crimes of violence to satisfy their demand for drugs; that drug use and trade inevitably involves violence, and individuals involved in drugs are more likely to be involved with violence, even if the defendant has never exhibited any violent behavior. What is more, the current drug laws make no difference between violent and nonviolent offenses, and an addict with a record of drug convictions often faces a longer sentence than a murderer. Instead of actually focusing on violent crime, drug crime penalty schemes (state and federal), include sentencing enhancements based upon the quantity of drug you have, assuming that the more drugs you possess, the more violent you are, even though there is little evidence to back this claim.

The overwhelming result of connecting drugs to violence is mass incarceration. Strict drug laws have punished individuals harshly for small roles in drug operations due to the fear of violence. The drug confiscation “success rate” of state and federal drug enforcement agencies has consistently hovered around 10% since the 1960s regardless of how many people are incarcerated and how much additional funding is allocated. By 2011, more than half of federal prisoners were serving time for a drug offense, while only 11% had committed a violent offense.

Recent U.S. Sentencing Commission changes—while positive—are not enough to make a dent in prison growth from the War on Drugs. Even with this change, a defendant convicted with just 10 grams of LSD, with one prior felony drug offense, receives at least 20 years in prison. But rather, these changes demonstrate that the time may be ripe to reconsider this flawed link between drugs and violence. Indeed, the entire framework of federal and state drug statutes and cases must abandon the myth that drugs cause violence.


Posted by Shima Baradaran Baughman on August 28, 2015 at 12:10 PM | Permalink


Thanks, Shima, for the clarification. Really interesting.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Aug 29, 2015 3:32:52 PM

I appreciate Prof. Shima Baradaran Baughman's comment / clarification that underlines that it's best to take the post and work as a whole, not selectively single out one problematic statement or two if put in without qualification. Which it seems is not intended.

Posted by: Joe | Aug 29, 2015 2:50:28 PM

Shima, many thanks for your thought-provoking post. A minor quibble: my sense is that the Sentencing Commission's approach is not that "the more drugs you possess, the more violent you are," but rather that the more drugs you possess, the more culpable you are. The use of quantity as a proxy for culpability applies to drugs and to economic crimes (e.g., fraud) under the Guidelines. Others, such as the ABA, Stith & Cabranes, have challenged this approach.

Posted by: Dawinder Sidhu | Aug 29, 2015 12:33:06 PM

Actually we didn't compare drug defendants who were serving time with those who were released pretrial.. We only looked at 15 years of drug defendants released all over the country (about 100,000 people) and those charged with drug trafficking and drug possession were overall the least likely to commit a violent crime while released pretrial. They were as safe to release (as far as violent crime) as the felony bad-drivers. Now they were the most likely to commit a property crime, so they aren't exactly model citizens but this surprising finding led to my further research that confirmed that even though there are a lot of anecdotal stories of violent crime associated with drugs, causation just isn't there.

Also, to the person who posted that there is a link between alcohol and violence--I totally agree (I was only dealing with illegal drugs in my paper, but there is also an interesting link between some common prescription drugs and violent behavior). Also meth is more closely linked to aggression than other drugs, but at the very least we should distinguish between the various drugs and only make this drug/violence connection when it is justified.

Posted by: Shima Baradaran Baughman | Aug 29, 2015 2:19:41 AM

Shima, is there a significant difference between the set of drug defendants released before trial and the set of drug defendants released from long prison sentences? The drug defendants released before trial are probably predominantly those charged with less serious offenses, such as possession. On the other hand, the defendants serving long prisons sentences who might be released early are probably predominantly those charged with more serious offenses, like involvement in large-scale distribution schemes. Perhaps the inclination towards violence of the two groups is similar, but I can think of reasons why it wouldn't be.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Aug 28, 2015 10:39:23 PM

Anecdotal evidence, especially from criminals, is of limited value.

The basic thing I get from anon's follow-up is sneering vibes. If the drugs are illegal, by definition use would be criminal. As I noted, certain types of drugs are associated with violence. Alcohol is associated with violence in particular. The more interesting question is how much, including taking drugs as a whole.

Rehabilitation, btw, involves a range of things, including non-violent offenses. This would include dealing with addiction of drugs that are not associated with violence. So, that is a particularly shallow rejoinder.

Posted by: Joe | Aug 28, 2015 3:27:41 PM

"Is it the drug that did this?" I can only respond with anecdotal evidence of people with no previous criminal record who, once becoming involved with drugs, started engaging in criminal (and often violent) behavior. I've heard many criminals say "I never would have done ______ crime if I hadn't been on drugs." Perhaps the whole idea that drug addicts who commit crimes need rehabilitation is misguided--perhaps the old defense standby argument of "my client would have never done this had he/she not been addicted to drugs" is something that courts should reject out of hand based on this "research."

Posted by: Anon | Aug 28, 2015 3:18:14 PM

It is violent competition between drug traffickers that is the primary engine of drug-related violence. A number of studies, for example, have demonstrated that lagged increases in violent crime followed the introduction of crack to an urban area. See, e.g., Eric Baumer, et al., The Influence of Crack Cocaine on Robbery, Burglary, and Homicide Rates: A Cross-City, Longitudinal Analysis, 35 J. RES. CRIME & DELINQ. 316 (1998); Daniel Cork, Examining Space-Time Interaction in City-Level Homicide Data: Crack Markets and the Diffusion of Guns Among Youth, 15 J. QUANTITATIVE CRIMINOLOGY 379 (1999); Jeff Grogger & Michael Willis, The Emergence of Crack Cocaine and the Rise of Urban Crime Rates, 82 REV. ECON. & STATS. 519 (2000); Steven F. Messner, et al, Locating the Vanguard in Rising and Falling Homicide Rates Across U.S. Cities, 43 CRIMINOLOGY 661 (2005); Graham Ousey & Matthew R. Lee, Examining the Conditional Nature of the Illicit Drug Market-Homicide Relationship: A Partial Test of Contingent Causation, 40 CRIMINOLOGY 73 (2002).

Larry Rosenthal
Chapman University Fowler School of Law

Posted by: Larry Rosenthal | Aug 28, 2015 3:04:51 PM

The first comment is a bit of a strawman. Drugs obviously in some cases cause violence. Alcohol, a drug often not called a "drug," (as in illegal drug) is an important factor in violence. Certain types of drugs can accelerate violence levels. The research here must mean "as a whole" or "net."

For instance:

"a drug dealer shot another drug dealer over a deal gone bad"

Is it the "drug" that did this? If it was some other illegal activity, violence could also result. What about the drug itself led to the violence? Ditto "stealing money" -- why? The drugs? Or, the inability to obtain them? People would steal money to deal with gambling and other things too.

I'll grant that comments like "no proof that illegal drugs pharmacologically cause violence" is to me a tad ridiculous. Certain drugs, like "methamphetamine and crack cocaine can be linked to an increase in violent behavior." But, big picture, the analysis has bite.


Posted by: Joe | Aug 28, 2015 1:41:17 PM

Well, Anon, I think the explanation is clear: You were hallucinating because *you* were on drugs.

But those drugs didn't make you violent, did they? So QED!

Posted by: Gloober | Aug 28, 2015 1:01:15 PM

Interesting. And directly contrary to my years of experience actually practicing law. I guess I imagined all of the cases where a drug dealer shot another drug dealer over a deal gone bad, or where a drug addict murdered another person in a drug-fueled rage, or where a drug addict strong-armed an innocent person to steal some money, or where a drug addicted mother allowed her young children to starve because she was too strung out to care, or where a drug dealer shot up the wrong house and killed an innocent little kid, or where a woman abused drugs while pregnant therefore causing irreversible damage to her innocent child. But, I am glad to have these "facts" and this "research" now to correct all of those imaginary things I experienced (apparently while hallucinating) on a daily basis. And, all of those people from high-crime areas who were constantly telling me that drugs turned their once nice neighborhoods into unsafe places must've been liars or delusional.

Posted by: Anon | Aug 28, 2015 12:44:28 PM

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