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State Sentencing: How Drug Sentencing Varies Across the U.S.

The United States has 5% of the world’s population – and 25% of its prisoners.
The average cost to house a minimum-security prisoner for one year is $21,006. By comparison, the average cost of putting a K-12 student through school for one year is $10,615.
Nearly half of all U.S. prisoners are jailed for drug-related offenses.

This isn’t politics. These are facts. We wanted to know a little more about what’s going on behind those data.

We took a look at drug sentencing statistics from a 2013 report by the United States Sentencing Commission on sentences handed down in federal guideline cases. Guideline cases are those sentenced in accordance with the rules outlined in the United States Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which set a standard policy for felonies and serious misdemeanors in the United States federal court system. All cases included here are sentences in federal courts, not state courts.

Take a look for yourself.

Looking at this map, we can see which substances have the highest percentage of all drug sentences for each state. The results might surprise you. While we thought marijuana would certainly dominate the map, this was only true of three states bordering Mexico; marijuana is by far the most seized drug that’s trafficked across the southern border. In fact, methamphetamine sentencing dominates throughout most of the western United States. In a strange irony, New Mexico – a state with a connection to meth that was popularized via “Breaking Bad” – has marijuana as the leading substance for drug sentences.

Wondering which state has the highest percentage of drug-related sentences? Compared to the national average, West Virginia comes in first here. Faced with the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation, West Virginia has cracked down on deadly prescription painkillers and heroin. When looking at other states that round out the top 10, the New England region places the most states with Maine, Vermont, and Connecticut. The rest of the top 10 states are distributed throughout the country.

[Hover over the bars below to expose the % of sentences for each substance]


[Hover over the bars above to expose the % of sentences for each substance]
Here we have a visual breakdown, by substance, of drug sentences for all 50 states. Similar to the map at the top, you can see which drug dominates sentencing for each state. However, this also shows the runner-up drugs and how prevalent they were in each state.

In most states around the country, cocaine sentences are more prevalent than crack sentences. The map is dominated by cocaine sentences. The exceptions come from a handful of southern states and all of New England, where crack sentences outnumber cocaine sentences.

Though the nation may be divided on how to treat those convicted of drug possession, almost everyone agrees drug trafficking convictions should result in jail time. Here, we look at which states come down hardest on those convicted for drug trafficking by looking at average months sentenced. The biggest differences may be linked to regions rather than specific drugs – while crack or cocaine place first in terms of drug offenses for many states along the eastern seaboard, the northeast’s average trafficking sentences tend to be years shorter than those in the southern states.

In this map, we look at which states have the highest number of drug trafficking sentences. Southern border states, where millions of pounds of drugs have been seized entering the US since 2005, are home to some of the greatest numbers of per capita trafficking sentences in the country. Interestingly, New Mexico, one of the states with the highest number of sentences, registered as a state with one of the lowest average months for trafficking punishments.

Avoid Becoming Another Statistic

We’re not politicians. But, through rehabilitation, we can help fight the growth of America’s prison population and keep taxpayer costs down – all while saving lives from the grasp of addiction.

Entanglements with the law are just some of the many devastating consequences people face while struggling with a substance abuse problem. Don’t let yourself or your loved ones become one of these statistics. Embark upon a path to recovery today. Call , 24 hours a day, for more information regarding drug treatment options.


We sorted through the United States Sentencing Commission Federal Sentencing Statistics from 2013 to determine which U.S. states have the highest percentage of drug-related sentences. We also determined which substance had the highest percentage of such sentences in each state.

The commission gathers statistics on criminal cases that a defendant pleads guilty to or is found guilty of, as well as statistics for those sentenced for committing a felony or Class A misdemeanor. In certain circumstances, a person can account for multiple “cases” and thus may be counted twice in the data. If there are multiple offenders for an offense (such as in a conspiracy case), each person sentenced counts as an individual case. The commission only collects data on sentences in federal court. The numbers do not include people who were arrested but not convicted. Petty offenses, such as Class B and C misdemeanors, were not included in the commission’s data as they are not subject to the guidelines.

Listed Chemicals are defined as any of the List I or List II chemicals in 21 U.S. Code § 802. Other drugs are all other controlled substances not individually mentioned by the Sentencing Commission Report.

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Please feel free to use the images found on this page freely. When doing so, we ask that you attribute the creators by linking back to this page so your readers can learn more about the project and methodology, as well as view additional assets.



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