Imprisoned Low-Level Drug Offenders in Arizona and California Typically Could Have Faced More Serious Charges

For Release

June 23, 2005

Most people imprisoned for low-level drug convictions in California and Arizona made plea bargains to avoid tougher charges, have criminal records, were involved with hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin, or were arrested possessing substantial quantities of drugs, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

The study is the first analysis of the characteristics of imprisoned low-level drug offenders in the two states, where voters approved initiatives to divert low-level drug offenders from prison and jail. The study addressed only the prison-bound portion of the population in the two states.

Researchers from RAND and Arizona State University found that a majority of those imprisoned before the initiatives were approved were more serious criminal offenders than the “low-level” label implies. Prosecutors in both states opposed the initiatives, fearing they would reduce incentives for people accused of drug crimes to plea bargain.

The term “low-level” describes offenders charged with use or possession of a small quantity of drugs, or possession of drug paraphernalia.

“One of the most important findings in this study is that the low-level label is misleading,” said Jack Riley, the study’s lead author and associate director of the RAND Infrastructure, Safety, and Environment program. “These offenders typically either have serious criminal records or plea bargained down from more serious arrest charges.”

“Many people backed these initiatives because they believed prisons were crowded with low-level offenders. However, we found that the people sent to prison on drug charges were not law-abiding citizens who simply made one mistake,” Riley added. “We cannot say, however, whether large numbers of low-level offenders may be in jails, as opposed to prisons.”

Researchers said the prison sentences given to these low-level offenders are not as harsh as previously believed, since most were involved in a variety of serious criminal offenses.

“These reforms were well-intended, but they lacked empirical information about the criminal history of these drug offenders,” said Nancy Rodriguez, co-author on the study and an associate professor of criminal justice and criminology at Arizona State University. “The reforms should have been more clear about the population they were trying to divert to drug treatment.”

The Drug Medicalization, Prevention, and Control Act (Proposition 200) approved by Arizona voters in 1996 allows nonviolent drug offenders to be sentenced to mandatory drug treatment, education or community service instead of prison. The Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act (Proposition 36) approved by California voters in 2000 allows people serving first- and second-time convictions for nonviolent drug possession or drug use to receive probation with drug treatment instead of prison.

Sentencing of low-level drug offenders to prison has raised concerns about the possibility of racial disparities among prisoners, disfranchisement of minorities from voting rights, and mistreatment of first-time offenders convicted of marijuana possession. Researchers found no evidence of racial bias in plea bargaining patterns. Factors such as type of drug, employment and county of prosecution were most likely to influence plea bargaining patterns.

Reform advocates who promoted the initiatives in Arizona and California said mandatory drug sentencing policies created penalties that were too harsh for low-level offenders. In addition, they sought to distinguish marijuana crimes from other drug offenses, because marijuana offenders were believed to be less likely to have violent or extensive criminal histories.

Researchers studied a sample from the more than 23,000 offenders sentenced to prison for low-level drug offenses during 1998 and 1999, the two years prior to the enactment of California’s sentencing reform.

Of those imprisoned on low-level drug charges prior to passage of Proposition 36, 68 percent were found to have a previous drug conviction. In addition, 72 percent of those imprisoned on charges of drug use or the possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia had previous drug convictions.

Researchers found that more than half of offenders possessed hard drugs, including cocaine and heroin, at the time of their arrests. Just 3 percent of the cases sampled involved marijuana only. On average, cocaine offenders generally had a larger number of prior criminal convictions than marijuana offenders—approximately twice as many previous convictions.

In examining Arizona’s Proposition 200, researchers studied close to 5,000 low-level drug offenses that resulted in prison time between 1996 and 2000. This period included time prior and following the implementation of Proposition 200, allowing researchers to study the effects of the reform on drug prosecution and imprisonment.

Researchers found that those imprisoned in Arizona for minor drug offenses had an average of 17 prior criminal offenses. About one-third originally were arrested on charges involving harder drugs.

Titled “Just Cause or Just Because: Prosecution and Plea-Bargaining Resulting in Prison Sentences on Low-Level Drug Charges in California and Arizona,” the report also examines drug sentencing trends that resulted from prosecution discretion such as plea-bargaining, and whether the Arizona’s reform initiative had any effect on these trends.

Researchers examined prosecution files and interviewed court officials about the process between the arrest of low-level drug offenders, the occurrence of plea-bargaining and the eventual sentencing of these offenders.

Prosecutors said they were less likely to drop the low-level drug charges for an offender with a violent or lengthy criminal history. Law enforcement officials argued that offenders eligible for drug treatment ended up in prison because they failed in their treatment attempts or choose prison in lieu of meeting the drug treatment requirements.

Following the implementation of Arizona’s Proposition 200, prosecution of marijuana cases decreased. Prosecution and imprisonment rates increased for paraphernalia offenders with serious criminal histories.

In particular, Arizona’s Proposition 200 appears to have had little effect on the prosecution practices that diverted offenders to drug treatment or resulted in the sentencing of a large number of minor offenders.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Substance Abuse Policy Research Program provided support for the study. Other authors of the report are Greg Ridgeway, Dionne Barnes-Proby, Nell Griffith Forge, and Terry Fain, all of RAND; and Vincent J. Webb of Arizona State University.

Copies of “Just Cause or Just Because? Prosecution and Plea-Bargaining Resulting in Prison Sentences on Low-Level Drug Charges in California and Arizona” (ISBN: 0-8330-3778-1) can be ordered from RAND’s Distribution Services ( or call toll-free in the U.S. 1-877-584-8642).

The RAND Drug Policy Research Center, a joint endeavor of RAND Infrastructure, Safety and Environment and RAND Health, produces research to help community leaders and public officials develop more effective ways of dealing with drug and drug policy problems. The Infrastructure, Safety and Environment program conducts research and analysis to improve the development, operation, use and protection of society’s essential man-made and natural assets, and to enhance the safety and security of individuals in transit, at work and in their communities.

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