This overview shows that no state showed any immediate reduction in their prison populations following the passing of legalization.
By contrast, two of these states also passed other legislation targeted at criminal justice reform and showed an immediate significant reduction in their prison populations.
We conclude that so far, legalization has not shown promise as an effective tool for reducing the prison population, particularly when compared to other criminal reform bills.
As noted earlier, the DC prison population showed a downward trend for the period of October 2012 through May 2015, with slight seasonal variation resulting in a drop of over 1600 inmates. However, since June 2015 there has been an increase in the population of about 500 inmates. While this overview cannot conclusively state that legalization was responsible for the reversal of the 3-year downward trend, we can conclusively state that legalization did not decrease the prison population. This is especially troubling since the DC legalization campaign ran on a platform that stated, “Legalization ends discrimination” and “Vote to refocus police resources.” It would appear that this has not happened. In fact, several articles point to an increase in marijuana possession and distribution arrests and a continued disparity in arrest demographics.
D.C. arrests for public use of marijuana nearly tripled last year
Marijuana arrests nearly triple in D.C. after legalization: Report
“Police: 86% of people arrested for marijuana in DC are black – Marijuana-related arrests are up 186 percent between 2015 to 2017, according to a WUSA9 analysis of arrest data posted to the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department website. ”
DC police data: Marijuana-related arrests up in recent years despite decriminalization
Oregon State has had a steadily increasing prison population since 2007. This steady increase has shown no signs of slowing or reversing since the passing of marijuana legalization in 2014. Though it is too early to conclusively state if marijuana legalization has contributed to the growth, we can definitely state that there has been no appreciable decline in the prison population since marijuana was legalized.
Washington State Summary
Washington state has had a steadily increasing prison population for the past 15 years. This steady increase has shown no signs of slowing or reversing since the passing of marijuana legalization in 2013. Though it is too early to conclusively state if marijuana legalization has contributed to the growth, we can definitely state that there has been no appreciable decline in the prison population since marijuana was legalized.
A Contrast In Effective and Ineffective Criminal Justice Reform Legislation : Alaska and Colorado
Alaska State Prison Population
The Alaska state prison population had been steadily increasing over the past several years. The year after legalization was implemented, the prison population remained steady. By contrast, there was an immediate and significant drop of a few hundred prisoners after the implementation of SB91 despite a corresponding increase in state population during the same time period.
Encouragingly, Alaska, unlike most states that have legalized marijuana, has a significantly less amount of people in jail in 2017 than they did prior to legalization. However, it appears that marijuana legalization is not responsible for this. In 2014, the year legalization was passed, the average prison population remained unchanged.
Concerned with prison overcrowding, Alaska implemented Senate bill 91 in 2015 which drastically reduced the reasons individuals could be incarcerated. As reported by the Anchorage Daily News, “Except for homicide or sex offenses, SB 91 took away or reduced jail as a penalty for the most common crimes, with the aim of focusing prison beds on more violent offenders.” This resulted in an immediate significant drop of hundreds of prisoners even while the overall state population saw an increase and is an example of legislation that shows promise toward criminal justice reform.
The contrast between the immediate impact of SB 91 and the indiscernible impact of marijuana legalization on the prison population one year later is instructive. Legislators and citizens across the country are quick to cite marijuana legalization as a victory for social justice and progress towards reducing the disparate impact of incarceration on communities of color, yet there are relatively few who have even heard of Alaska SB91. One had a significant impact 1-year later and the other did not.
Anchorage Daily News
How SB 91 has changed Alaska’s criminal justice system – Anchorage …
Alaska Justice Forum
Senate Bill 91: Summary of Policy Reforms | Justice Center …
Colorado Prison Population
The years following marijuana legalization saw a moderate increase in the prison population ending a 4-year decline that began in 2009. In 2015 Colorado passed SB15-124 which was designed to “Reduce Parole Revocations For Technical Violations.” The following year there was a significant drop in the prison population followed by a continued increase.
Colorado steadily decreased its prison population from a high of 23,186 in 2009, to 20,135 in 2013. From 2014, the year that legalization was implemented, the prison population increased until year 2016. While it is too early to say if legalization caused the reversal of the decrease and start of increase, we can say that there were no appreciable drops in the prison population in correlation with the passing of legalization.
By contrast, in 2016 there was a significant reduction in the prison population following the passing of legislation designed to decrease technical parole violations. This led to an immediate decrease in prison population in year 2016 giving an example of legislation that actually leads to positive criminal justice reform and a significant reduction in prison population. Nevertheless with the continued post -2014 accelerated rate of incarceration the one year drop in prison population was all but erased by 2017 and is projected to skyrocket in the following years. More research should be done to determine why, however we can see marijuana legalization is not delivering on its promise to significantly reduce the prison population.
Continuing Disparities and Increased Arrests
Perhaps most concerning – and revealing- racial disparities in enforcement of marijuana laws continue to exist and in some cases have been exacerbated. The following are some of the prime areas of concern.
- African Americans are twice as likely to be arrested for marijuana in Colorado and Washington, both states that have legalized recreational use and sales (CJCJ)
- Colorado’s marijuana arrest rate for African Americans (233 per 100,000) was nearly double that of Caucasians (118 per 100,000) in 2017. (CDPS, 2018)
- In Colorado, on-view arrests are up 26% since 2015 (1,074 to 1,353 in 2017). Blacks (39%) were 21% more likely to experience an on-view arrest than whites (18%) in 2017. (CDPS, 2018)
- In Denver, Colorado, African American arrests in 2017, the last year for which data are available, remain unchanged versus 2012. Hispanic and Asian arrests are up during the same period. (CDPS, 2018)
- The pot industry is targeting minorities, much like Big Tobacco. In Denver, one minority neighborhood has one pot business for every 47 residents. (Denver Post)
- The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 28% of women living in low-income areas tested positive for marijuana use during pregnancy. (Foeller & Lyell, 2017)
- Disturbingly, according to state data, in states that have legalized since 2014, the overall prison population has stayed stable and in some states like Colorado and Washington D.C. it has risen sharply since legalization after years of decline.
- In states that have legalized marijuana, minority youth are showing much larger increases in use of marijuana than their Caucasian counterparts. (Johnson RM)
- 63% of African American workers surveyed work in a profession where they will be drug tested, compared to 46% of white workers.(Yale)
Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ). (2016).Black People Twice As Likely To Be Arrested For Pot In Colorado And Washington — Where It’s Legal. http://www.cjcj.org/news/10232
Colorado Department of Public Safety (2018). https://cdpsdocs.state.co.us/ors/docs/reports/2018-SB-13-283_report.pdf https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/dcj‐ors/StudentContact_SD.
Foeller, M. E., & Lyell, D. J. (2017). Marijuana use in pregnancy: Concerns in an evolving era. Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health, 62(3), 363–367. doi: 10.1111/jmwh.12631
Johnson RM, et al. Prev Sci. 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/29633175/i=1&from=renee%20m%20johnsonMigoya, David, and Baca, Ricardo. “Denver’s pot businesses mostly in low-income, minority neighborhoods”. The Denver Post, 2 Jan. 2016.
More Data Sources:
Legal Marijuana In Colorado Hasn’t Stopped Racial Disparity In Arrests
Colorado Springs Independent
Racial disparities persist in marijuana arrests | Local News | Colorado …