“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 (I-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 the 25 percent of the world’s total prison population is in the United States, even though the U.S. has only five 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 actual 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.”
Obama’s statement, coming during a prepared speech rather than 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 is 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 to just 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,” he 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 non-violent 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 non-violent 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 to the next one on our list. Carly Fiorina claimed that “two-thirds 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 actually 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 only 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 two-thirds of the federally sentenced offenders.
But from the context of Fiorina’s statement — she had just mentioned the factoid about the U.S. 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 Clinton, whose discussion at the 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 just referred 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, just 3.6 percent of inmates in state and federal prisons were incarcerated for drug possession. In fiscal year 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.
Send us facts to check by filling out this form