No presidential debate this year would be complete without denunciations of drug laws, which, it is alleged, result in long prison terms for thousands of people, disproportionately African Americans, who are guilty only of low-level offenses, thus fueling “mass incarceration.” Last month, Republican Carly Fiorina charged that “two-thirds of the people in our prisons are there for nonviolent offenses, mostly drug-related.” On Tuesday night, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said, “We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away, and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana.” Hillary Clinton said, “We have a huge population in our prisons for nonviolent, low-level offenses that are primarily due to marijuana.” These arguments are exaggerated or wrong, writes Charles Lane in the Washington Post.
Last year, 46 percent of inmates were in for violent offenses. This is a conservative estimate, because the definition of “violent” excludes 30,000 federal prisoners, 16 percent of the total, who are doing time for weapons violations. Drug offenders account for only 19.5 percent of the state-federal prison population, most of whom, especially in the federal system, were convicted of dealing drugs such as cocaine, heroin and meth, not “smoking marijuana.” Only 21 percent of the stunning 363 percent prison population growth between 1980 and 2009 was due to the imprisonment of drug offenders, most of which occurred between 1980 and 1989, not more recently, says a review of government data reported by Fordham law Prof. John Pfaff. More than half of the overall increase was due to punishment of violent offenses, not drugs, Pfaff reports. If we released all 208,000 people currently in state prison on a drug charge, the proportion of African Americans in state prison would still be 37 percent.