Pubdate: Sun, 08 Nov 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Column: The Fact Checker
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Author: Glenn Kessler


"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."

- - President Obama, remarks at the NAACP Conference, July 14, 2015

"Two-thirds of the people in our prisons are there for nonviolent 
offenses, mostly drug related."

- - Businesswoman Carly Fiorina, remarks at the GOP debate, Sept. 16

"We are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are 
smoking marijuana."

- - Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), remarks at Democratic debate, Oct. 13

"We have a huge population in our prisons for nonviolent, low-level 
offenses that are primarily due to marijuana."

- - Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, remarks at debate, Oct. 13

If there ever was a bipartisan consensus on an issue, it seems it 
would concern the "war on drugs" and how well-intentioned but poorly 
crafted laws led to mass incarceration - so much so that 25 percent 
of the world's total prison population is in the United States, even 
though it has only 5 percent of the world's population.

But the statements above also reflect a basic misunderstanding of the 
data on prison populations. We've listed the statements in order, 
from the least egregious to the most outlandish, to demonstrate how - 
almost like a game of telephone - the facts get increasingly unmoored 
from the data. It's a complex issue, which leads itself to facile explanations.

"It's not a sound-bite story," said Douglas A. Berman, an Ohio State 
University law professor. "The more extreme and specific a sound bite 
is, the more likely it is to be wrong."

The Facts

Obama's statement, coming during a prepared speech rather than as an 
impromptu debate comment, is carefully phrased. He reaches back 
several decades and asserts that more drug offenders, for longer than 
ever before, have been locked up. "That's the real reason our 
population is so high," he said.

The problem is the president's phrase "the real reason." It makes a 
difference whether just federal prisoners or state and federal 
prisoners are counted - Obama appears to be talking about both - but 
even so, the president makes the connection between drug offenders 
and rising prison populations too stark.

"That is clearly wrong," said Jonathan P. Caulkins, professor of 
public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. "The proportion of 
prison inmates who were drug law violators has been pretty nearly 
flat at 20 percent since 1990," he said, referring to combined 
federal and state figures. "So the number of drug law violators in 
prison was increasing from 1990 until fairly recently, and that may 
have been bad policy, but the number of people in prison on non-drug 
offenses was rising just as fast, as indicated by drug law violators' 
proportion holding more or less constant."

Fordham University Professor John Pfaff, who has closely studied the 
data, said that in the States, 52 percent of the growth in prison 
populations between 1980 and 2009 came from locking up violent 
offenders, compared with 21 percent for drug offenders.

"If we just look at 1990 to 2009 [the period of falling crime], 
locking up violent offenders explains 60 percent of the growth, to 
just 14 percent for drug offenders," Pfaff said. Moreover, he said 
the growth came from admitting more people to prison, not from longer 
sentences, as the president asserted.

The White House said that the president was not claiming the 
proportion of nonviolent drug offenders has increased. Instead, he 
was noting that the total number of incarcerated individuals would be 
much lower - in both state and federal prisons - were it not for the 
large number of nonviolent drug offenders who are incarcerated.

The White House also pointed to a 2012 Pew Research Center study 
showing that time served for drug crimes in state prisons grew 36 
percent between 1990 and 2009 (from 1.6 years to 2.2 years). But 
Pfaff noted the Pew analysis also shows that rising admissions - a 
gain of 43 percent - play a greater role in prison growth. Meanwhile, 
time served has barely changed in federal prisons, according to 
Justice Department data cited by the Congressional Research Service.

But Obama's statement is a model of precision, compared with the next 
one on our list. Carly Fiorina claimed that "twothirds of the people 
in our prisons are there for nonviolent offenses, mostly drug related."

In 2014, there were 1.56 million prisoners in federal and state 
prisons. The rate of imprisonment is at its lowest rate in a decade, 
according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Of the inmates, more 
than 50 percent were convicted of violent offenses, while 15.7 
percent were incarcerated on drug charges. (Just 3.6 percent were in 
prison for drug possession, while 12.1 percent were jailed for 
trafficking or other serious drug offenses.)

Fiorina is more on target if you look just at federal prisons. In a 
report issued in October, BJS said that more than half of all federal 
prison inmates were convicted of drug trafficking, often for dealing 
in cocaine. Adding in other nonviolent offenses, such as property and 
immigration, gets you to twothirds of the federally sentenced offenders.

But from the context of Fiorina's statement - she had just mentioned 
the factoid about the United States having 25 percent of the world's 
prisoners - she must have been referring to state and federal 
prisons. And in that instance she is off base.

Fiorina at least can point to some data that might back up the 
general thrust of her statement.

No such luck for Bernie Sanders and Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose 
discussion at the Democratic debate was almost a parody of the issue.

Sanders said that "we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to 
young people who are smoking marijuana." Sanders would have been on 
safer ground if he had referred just to arrests, because arrest rates 
for marijuana possession are at near-record high rates, according to 
the FBI. In 2014, at least 620,000 people were arrested for pot possession.

But while the consequences of an arrest can be great, Sanders erred 
by suggesting most of these arrests lead to prison terms. As noted 
previously, 3.6 percent of inmates in state and federal prisons were 
incarcerated for drug possession. In fiscal 2014, in the federal 
system, just 187 inmates (0.9 percent) were sentenced for simple drug 
possession - of which 75 were jailed for marijuana possession. 
Ninety-seven percent of drug offenders were convicted of drug trafficking.

This bring us to Clinton's statement: "We have a huge population in 
our prisons for nonviolent, low-level offenses that are primarily due 
to marijuana." As demonstrated by the data, that's simply laughable. 
Her campaign did not even bother to offer a defense, declining to comment.

The Pinocchio Test

We're going to end up with enough Pinocchios that we could go bowling.

Obama can point to longer prison terms for more drug offenders, at 
least in terms of raw numbers, but runs into trouble when he says 
that's the "real" reason for the size of the prison population. He 
earns One Pinocchio.

Fiorina earns Two Pinocchios because her statement, while correct for 
federal prisons, was off base for state and federal prisons.

Sanders ends up with Three Pinocchios, having conflated arrests with 
jail sentences. And Clinton earns Four Pinocchios for the absurd 
suggestion that prisons are overflowing with marijuana convicts.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom