July 5 (UPI) -- New research has linked high county-level incarceration rates to higher rates of drug deaths and economic decline in the United States.
Counties with the highest rates of incarceration had about two more drug-related deaths per 100,000 and a 50 percent higher rate of drug mortality compared to counties with the lowest rates, according to a study published July The Lancet Public Health.
"The rapid expansion of the prison and jail population since the mid-1970s, largely driven by a series of sentencing reforms including mandatory sentences for drug convictions, is likely to have made a substantial contribution to the more than 500,000 overdose deaths across America over the past 35 years," said Lawrence King, a researcher from the University of Massachusetts and study co-lead author, in a news release.
The researchers looked at data county-level incarceration data from the Vera Institute of Justice between 1983 and 2014. Then they compared it with numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. National Vital Statistics to draw a connection between deaths linked to drug use, economic decline and incarceration rates.
"At the community level, the criminal justice system removes working-age men from the local communities, separates families and disrupts social networks," said Elias Nosrati, a researcher from the University of Oxford and study lead author, in a news release.
Counties around the country with an average drop of $12,000 in household income from $46,841 had a 13 percent increase in drug death rates, the researchers say. Since 1980, drug overdose deaths have increased each year in every county. The percentages varied from as low as 8 percent to more than 8,000 percent.
Local jails with average admission rates of 7,018 percent 100,000 had an increased drug overdose death rate of 1.5 percent. By contrast, state prisons with average rates of 255 per 100,000 had drug-related deaths go up by 2.6 percent. The researchers stress this increase is not causal but rather an association.
"When coupled with economic hardship, prison and jail systems may constitute and upstream determinant of 'despair', whereby regular exposures to neighborhood violence, unstable social and family relationships and stress can trigger destructive behaviors," Nosrati said.