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Will Oregon Drug Recriminalization Boost Jail Population?

Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek signed the bill ending the first-in-the-nation drug decriminalization enacted three years ago. The new law recriminalizes the possession of small amounts of drugs. The new measure will go into effect this fall. Starting Sept. 1, a person with small amounts of illicit drugs will face a new “drug enforcement misdemeanor," USA Today reports. The total number of people incarcerated for drug offenses remains much higher compared to the 1970s – before a national "war on drugs" ramped up the enforcement of anti-drug laws. Currently, one in five incarcerated people is locked up for a drug offense, the Prison Policy Initiative says. On any given day, state, local and federal prisons house an estimated 361,000 people who are being held for drug offenses.

For almost every year in the past decade, the annual number of arrests for drug possession topped one million. In 2019, nearly 40% of drug possession arrests involved marijuana, according to the FBI Crime Data Explorer. In 2020, the category "other dangerous nonnarcotic drugs," were the top drugs involved in arrests for drug possession. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reported that 44.4% of its inmates are serving time for drug-related offenses, 64,081 people. At the end of 2021, 12.5% of prisoners in state correctional custody had drug-related offenses. The share of prisoners in state correctional custody in Oregon, Washington and California for drug-related offenses was much lower than its neighboring state of Idaho. Drug manufacturing and possession is a felony in Idaho rather than a misdemeanor, leading to more severe punishment such as a lengthy prison sentence. A recent report from the Department of Justice found that the total U.S. prison population increased 2.1% between 2021 and 2022. This was the first increase in the combined state and federal prison population in almost a decade.

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