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    Substance Abuse and America’s Prison Population 2010

    Published: January 2010

    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, other substance use and addiction. Between 1996 and 2006, as the U.S. population rose by 12 percent, the number of adults incarcerated rose by 33 percent to 2.3 million inmates, and the number of inmates who were substance-involved shot up by 43 percent 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.

    Key Takeaways

    Of the 2.3 million inmates crowding our nation’s prisons and jails, 85% were substance-involved. Further, 1.5 million met the DSM-IV medical criteria for addiction. Another 458,000 did not met the strict DSM-IV criteria, but had histories of substance use issues and were under the influence of alcohol or another substance 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. Further, in 2006, alcohol and other drugs were involved in:

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

    Additional findings include the following:

    • Alcohol was implicated in the incarceration of more than half of all inmates in America.
    • Illicit substances were implicated in three-fourths of incarcerations.
    • Only 11% of all inmates with addiction received any treatment during their incarceration.
    • 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.


    For the government:

  • 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 pre-release 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.
  • Research Methods

    This study 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.

    Last Updated

    November 2023