Substance Abuse & America’s Prison Population 2010 | Center on Addiction

Behind Bars II: Substance Abuse and America’s Prison Population

Behind Bars II: Substance Abuse and America’s Prison Population

Published: February 2010

Add this reports


America’s prisons and jails are rife with addiction and substance use. CASAColumbia’s research shows that the increase in America’s prison population is due overwhelmingly to criminal activity linked to alcohol and other drug use and addiction. Between 1996 and 2006, as the U.S. population rose by 12%, the number of adults incarcerated rose by 33% to 2.3 million inmates, and the number of inmates who were substance-involved shot up by 43% to 1.9 million inmates. This report is an exhaustive analysis of the extent to which alcohol and other drugs are implicated in the crimes and incarceration of America’s prison population.


To conduct this study, CASAColumbia analyzed data on inmates from 11 federal sources, reviewed more than 650 articles and other publications, examined best practices in prevention and treatment for substance-involved offenders, reviewed accreditation standards and analyzed costs and benefits of treatment.


Of the 2.3 million inmates crowding our nation’s prisons and jails, 85% were substance-involved; 1.5 million met the DSM-IV medical criteria for substance abuse or addiction. Another 458,000 had not met the strict DSM-IV criteria but had histories of substance abuse and were under the influence of alcohol or other drugs at the time of their crime, committed their offense to get money to buy drugs, were incarcerated for an alcohol or drug law violation, or shared some combination of these characteristics. In 2006, alcohol and other drugs were involved in:

  • 78% of violent crimes
  • 83% of property crimes
  • 77% of public order, immigration or weapons offenses and probation/parole violations

Alcohol was implicated in the incarceration of more than half of all inmates in America; illicit drugs were implicated in three-fourths of incarcerations.

In 2005, federal, state and local governments spent $74 billion on incarceration, court proceedings, probation and parole for substance-involved adult and juvenile offenders, and less than 1% of that amount—$632 million—on prevention and treatment.

The report found that only 11% of all inmates with addiction received any treatment during their incarceration. The report found that if all inmates who needed treatment and aftercare received such services, the nation would break even in a year if just over 10% remained substance-free, crime-free and employed. Thereafter, for each former inmate who remained substance-free, crime-free and employed, the nation would reap an economic benefit of $90,953 per year.


There is an enormous gap in state and federal prisons between available addiction treatment—and inmate participation—and the need for such addiction treatment. 


The report provides a set of recommendations, including the following:

  • Use trained health care professionals to screen, assess and treat substance-involved offenders and provide care for co-occurring physical and mental health problems
  • Provide comprehensive prerelease planning and aftercare to continue treatment services for inmates with addiction
  • Require addiction treatment for inmates to be medically managed
  • Expand the use of treatment-based alternatives to jail and prison
  • Require accreditation for prison- and jail-based treatment programs and providers

Download the full report

Download The Full Report

Download Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the full-text versions of our reports online.

Further information

Read the press release.


Newsletter Additional Information

Newsletter Additional Information

Thank you for subscribing

This information will be used to better customize your experience and help inform future tools and features on our website.

Additional Information
What brought you to our website?