Expert Commentary

Public assistance seems to help drug offenders stay away from crime

Millions of Americans have been imprisoned under the War on Drugs. Convicts who receive public assistance after release may be less likely to offend again.


Over half of all federal prisoners are locked up for drug-related crimes, often possession or other non-violent offenses, according to government figures.

When they get out, their options are limited. A 1996 law, signed by President Bill Clinton, imposed a lifetime ban on welfare benefits and food stamps to people convicted of a state or federal felony involving “the possession, use or distribution of a controlled substance.” Over 30 states have since partially opted out of the ban.

How those states compare on recidivism rates is the focus of a new paper.

An academic study worth reading: “Does Public Assistance Reduce Recidivism?” in American Economic Review, 2017.

Study summary: Crystal Yang of Harvard Law School measured how prisoners’ access to welfare benefits and food stamps upon release may impact the likelihood they return to prison within a year, which is her definition of recidivism.

The data, from the U.S. government’s National Corrections Reporting Program, include almost 5 million first-time drug offenders released in 43 states between 1971 and 2014. Yang compares these release figures to the date when states pulled out of the public assistance provisions of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, the Clinton-era law that took effect on August 22, 1996.

Key takeaways:

  • Eligibility for welfare reduces the recidivism rate of drug offenders by 10.1 percent overall and by 1.7 percentage points compared to non-drug offenders.
  • Drug offenders fully eligible for food stamps are 13.1 percent less likely to return to prison within one year and 2.2 percentage points less likely than non-drug offenders.
  • When fully eligible for both welfare and food stamps, drug offenders are 2.5 percentage points less likely to return to prison than non-drug offenders
  • Convicted drug offenders are more likely than non-drug offenders to be black or Hispanic. They also serve less time on average than non-drug offenders.

Helpful resources:

The Drug Policy Alliance, a group that advocates for reform to drug laws, explains that President Richard Nixon popularized the term “War on Drugs,” but that mass incarceration for drug crimes began under Ronald Regan in the 1980s. According to the Alliance, one of the few sources to collate the data, the United States spends $51 billion fighting the War on Drugs each year. NPR has a 2013 story about how Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York, in the 1970s, introduced harsh drug laws that locked up low-level criminals for decades and still underpin America’s drug policy.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics publishes authoritative figures on the nation’s prison program, including annual updates and the National Corrections Reporting Program data that Yang used in her study. A 2015 BJS report showed that about three-quarters of drug offenders in federal prisons were black or Hispanic. The Bureau of Prisons has more data, including this chart showing that the vast majority of federal crimes are drug-related.

Other research:

  • This 2017 research roundup highlights government reports and academic papers that help paint a picture of the men, women and children in custody nationwide.
  • This 2016 literature review looks at research on marijuana legalization and crime.
  • Release from prison during an economic upswing may reduce the chance an offender returns to jail, a 2016 study found.
  • A number of studies, such as this 2016 paper in the Journal of Crime and Justice, show that minorities are disproportionately punished for crimes.
  • A 2017 study in the Journal of Experimental Criminology found prison “has no effect on drug offenders rates’ of reconviction.”

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