In recent speeches on criminal justice, President Obama has emphasized one of the most problematic myths standing in the way of true penal reform, and his recent commutations of 46 federal sentences implicitly did the same, says law Prof. John Pfaff of Fordham University. Obama suggested that we can scale back incarceration by focusing solely on nonviolent offenders. The President made this a key point in his speech this month to the NAACP, when he said, “Here's the thing: Over the last few decades, we've also locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before. And that is the real reason our prison population is so high.” This claim, which is widely accepted by policymakers and the public, is simply wrong, Pfaff writes in the Washington Post.
It's true that nearly half of all federal inmates have been sentenced for drug offenses, but the federal system holds only only about 14 percent of all inmates. In state prisons, which hold the remaining 86 percent, more than half of inmates are serving time for violent crimes, and since 1990, 60 percent of the growth in state prison populations has come from locking up violent offenders. Less than a fifth of state prisoners — 17 percent — are serving time for nonviolent drug offenses. Contrary to Obama's claim, drug inmates tend to serve relatively short sentences. It is the inmates who are convicted of violent crimes who serve the longer terms. Pfaff says that, “We are going to have to reduce the punishments that violent offenders face if we really want to cut our breathtaking prison population down to size.” He adds that, “This idea is a political third rail, and no leading politician has been willing to risk touching it.”