In Prison Debate, Dems’ Focus on Drugs Called Mistaken

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Democratic presidential candidates are wrong to suggest that more lenient sentences for drug crimes will meaningfully reduce mass incarceration in the U.S., Fordham University law Prof. John Pfaff writes in Politico. Such comments were made in a recent debate by former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) criticized Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) for sending people to jail for marijuana crimes when Harris was the district attorney in San Francisco. In their rush to sound strong on criminal justice reform, the candidates left out one important fact, Pfaff says: Drug crime is not what’s driving the high prison population; rather it’s crimes of violence.

People convicted of drug crimes make up only 15 percent of state prison populations. Over half of state prisons inmates have been convicted of a violent crime; half of those convicted of violence—more than 25 percent of all prisoners—have been convicted of the most serious crimes: murder, manslaughter or sexual assault. In state prisons, which hold nearly 90 percent of the nation’s 1.5 million prisoners, almost 95 percent of inmates serving long sentences have been convicted of serious violence, not drugs; about half or more of such inmates were convicted of murder or manslaughter. Also, inmates in prison on a drug charge may be there as a result of a plea bargain involving more serious accusations. Violent crimes increasingly explain the total number admitted to prison each year. As of 2011 (the most recent year with good data), state prison admissions for violent crimes were about 15 percent larger than those for drug offenses, a gap that has surely grown as sanctions for drug crimes are reduced, Pfaff says.

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