Pubdate: Fri, 16 Oct 2015
Source: Minneapolis Star-Tribune (MN)
Copyright: 2015 Star Tribune
Author: Charles Lane, Washington Post


Everybody agrees our prisons are filled with nonviolent drug users, 
especially pot smokers. But they aren't.

The consensus in favor of looser drug laws is just the latest 
political free lunch.

It seems that no presidential debate this year would be complete 
without denunciations of the 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."

At the last Republican debate, on Sept. 16, former Hewlett-Packard 
chief executive Carly Fiorina charged that "two-thirds of the people 
in our prisons are there for nonviolent offenses, mostly drug-related."

Apropos of former Florida governor Jeb Bush's admitted youthful 
marijuana use, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky observed that "there is at 
least one prominent example on the stage of someone who says they 
smoked pot in high school, and yet the people going to jail for this 
are poor people, often African-Americans and often Hispanics, and yet 
the rich kids who use drugs aren't."

When Democrats faced off Tuesday night, Sen. Bernie Sanders of 
Vermont said he is for marijuana legalization, "because I am seeing 
in this country too many lives being destroyed for nonviolent 
offenses. 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."

And Hillary Clinton, the front-running former secretary of state, 
chimed in: "I agree completely with the idea that we have got to stop 
imprisoning people who use marijuana ... We have a huge population in 
our prisons for nonviolent, low-level offenses that are primarily due 
to marijuana."

Too bad this bipartisan agreement is contradicted by the evidence. 
Fiorina's numbers, for example, are exaggerated: In 2014, 46 percent 
of all state and federal inmates were in for violent offenses 
(murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault), according to the 
latest Justice Department data. This is a conservative estimate, 
since the definition of violent offense excludes roughly 30,000 
federal prisoners, about 16 percent of the total, who are doing time 
for weapons violations.

Drug offenders account for only 19.5 percent of the total 
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."

Undeniably, the population of state prisons (which house the vast 
majority of offenders) grew from 294,000 in 1980 to 1,362,000 in 2009 
- - a stunning 363 percent increase - though it has been on a downward 
trajectory since the latter date.

But only 21 percent of that growth was due to the imprisonment of 
drug offenders, most of which occurred between 1980 and 1989, not 
more recently, according to a review of government data reported by 
Fordham law Prof. John Pfaff in the Harvard Journal of Legislation. 
More than half of the overall increase was due to punishment of 
violent offenses, not drugs, Pfaff reports.

Reviewing data admittedly drawn mostly from Northern "blue" states, 
Pfaff determined that "the median stay in prison for a drug offender 
is generally about a year" and that "relatively few people appear to 
be in prison on marijuana charges" - fewer still for simple possession.

Given the relatively small share of drug offenders, ending the war on 
drugs would not significantly alter the racial disparity in 
incarceration rates, contrary to the conventional wisdom.

Blacks make up 37.5 percent of all state prisoners, about triple 
their share of the population as a whole, according to the Justice 
Department. If we released all 208,000 people currently in state 
prisons on a drug charge, the proportion of African-Americans in 
state prisons would still be 37 percent.

In short, ending the war on drugs is not quite the panacea for mass 
incarceration that politicians imply.

Marijuana legalization could help reduce arrest rates, to be sure; 
and to the extent that fewer people get busted for smoking pot, that 
would, indeed, cut down on the resulting undue negative personal and 
social consequences.

Otherwise, the bipartisan consensus in favor of looser drug laws is 
just the latest political free lunch, served up by politicians who 
would rather discuss anything except real public policy trade-offs.

Republicans and Democrats alike are propounding the crowd-pleasing 
notion that we can have less incarceration - saving the country 
billions of dollars and international shame - without risking an 
increase in violent crime, or other harms.

In truth, if we released all 300,000 drug offenders from state and 
federal prisons, the U.S. incarceration rate would still be far 
higher than it was three decades ago, and far higher than the rates 
of other industrial democracies.

The only way to lower it dramatically would be to reduce the 
frequency and duration of imprisonment for violent crimes, while 
continuing to reduce violent crime itself.

If any of the candidates has a plan to do that, he or she should speak up.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom