How many people are locked up for drug offenses in the US?

Emily Gray Brosious

May 18, 2017


Drug charges make up a significant portion of all arrests made by law enforcement across the United States each year. And while drug offenders do not represent the majority of people locked up in this country, incarcerating people for drug crimes is a “defining characteristic of the federal prison system,” according to Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit research and advocacy group based in Massachusetts.

In March 2017, there were approximately 2.3 million people locked up in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 901 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails and 76 Indian Country jails, as well as military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers and prisons in U.S. territories, Prison Policy Initiative reports.

The organization recently pieced together data from all the detention centers, prisons and jails across the country, breaking down the percentage of people locked up for drug crimes in proportion to other crimes. See the stats in the following gallery.


View gallery: Drug prisoners in the U.S.

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Gallery source link: Prison Policy Initiative


Prison Policy Initiative’s report, which it describes as a “comprehensive snapshot of our correctional system,” includes a few important caveats:

  • It “does not capture the enormous churn in and out of our correctional facilities and the far larger universe of people whose lives are affected by the criminal justice system. Every year, 641,000 people walk out of prison gates, but people go to jail over 11 million times each year.”
  • Individuals incarcerated for multiple offenses are classified under the most serious offense. That means a person locked up for a violent crime may also have been convicted of a drug crime, for example.
  • Most convictions are the result of plea bargains in which people plead guilty to a lesser offense, sometimes in a different category, than the crime they are charged with.

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