Addiction & Overdose

Estimating Economic Costs Prosecuting Simple Drug Possession in Baltimore City

May 10, 2023

Prosecutors and police in Baltimore and cities around the country are considering alternative ways to address the addiction and overdose crisis. To inform these efforts, researchers Javier Cepeda and Saba Rouhani from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, with support from the Initiative, investigated the effort and economic costs associated with criminally prosecuting simple drug possession offenses in Baltimore City. 

Their objective was to determine the opportunity cost of prosecuting simple drug possession (i.e. the time and resources spent on this, as opposed to spending these resources on an alternative activity).

The study involved in-depth interviews with key informants from current and former prosecutors, public defenders, law enforcement officers, and legal experts familiar with the justice system in Baltimore City. The respondents provided detailed information of the personnel involved in each process in a cascade of events from arrest to incarceration.  

The study's key findings: Overall, an estimated 85,000-234,000 personnel hours and 4.8-18 million dollars were expended on prosecuting simple drug possession in 2018. The study found that prosecuting drug possession is more costly than other misdemeanors due to the requirement of sending drug samples for laboratory testing in each instance.  The authors noted that while most simple possession cases do not proceed to full trial or incarceration, the costliest stages of the process are those incurred prior to the dismissal of charges.

The analysis did not include the costs of drug courts, diversion programs, spending on health and public assistance programs exacerbated by arrest and incarceration, and individual and societal costs of consequences like loss of employment or housing. The analysis also did not estimate potential economic costs of non-enforcement of these charges.

The authors conclude that policymakers should carefully weigh the costs and perceived benefits of prosecuting simple drug possession versus other potential uses of these resources to support individuals and communities.

Read the full report here.

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