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Letter to the Editors: Incarceration and Nonviolent Drug Offenses

To the Editors:

In her essay, “The Drug War Turns 50,” Emily Campbell (2022) seriously misrepresents the situation when she writes, “Today, more than half of American prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses.”  The most recent national figures available on-line are for the year 2020. They show that of the 1,043,000 prisoners in state prisons, 62% were in for violent offenses, 14% for property crimes, and 13% for drug offenses.  Of the 131,600 drug offenders, 33,700 were in for possession, and 97,800 for other drug-related charges, presumably largely for selling.  As of Sept. 30, 2021, 46.7% of the 42,290 sentenced federal prisoners had drugs as their most serious offense.  Of the 514,000 people in local jails, 20,000 had been convicted of a drug offense, and 109,000 had not been convicted but were being heldon drug charges, and were presumably awaiting trial ). Totalling the figures for state, federal and local jails, it is clear that the number and proportion incarcerated for drug offenses are much lower than Campbell states.

David F. Greenberg
Independent Scholar


In the 2022 article, “The Drug War Turns 50,” I write, “Today, more than half of American prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses.” For decades, more than 50% of persons held in federal prisons were there for a drug offense. This declined below the halfway mark in 2015 and has continued to recede. My assertion was based on secondary literature that relied on dated federal prison statistics that did not take state prisons and local jails into account. I stand behind the article’s main argument which states, “From an overdose crisis and mass incarceration in the U.S. to displacement and human-rights abuses in Mexico and beyond, this expansive policy has ravaged families and communities for decades.” I would like to thank Professor David F. Greenberg for his engagement and the editors of Contexts for the opportunity to respond.

Emily B. Campbell


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