New data shows Dems are dead wrong about U.S. prisons

Advocates for criminal justice reform tell us that U.S. prisons are bursting because low-level, nonviolent drug offenders are being unnecessarily prosecuted and jailed, but new data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) is telling a very different tale.

It may come as a surprise given all the progressive propaganda, but only about 3.2% of state prisoners are behind bars for possession charges, and just 12.6% are incarcerated for drug-related crimes.

Meanwhile, “five times as many people are in state prisons for violent crimes rather than drug charges,” according to Fox News Digital (FND).

Zack Smith, a legal fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, says “the left” isn’t being honest with the American people.

“If you listen to people on the left, you’d think that everyone who has a joint in their pocket is getting sent to prison for 20 years, which just is not the case,” he told FND.

Decriminalizing drugs has been a talking point from progressive politicians — including some Republicans — who state severe drug laws have caused a surge in the prison population.

In 2019, Squad leader Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex (D-N.Y.) stated in a thread about allowing convicted felons to vote that “our prison system” jails “nonviolent” people who are caught with “a dime bag.”

“Black Americans & PoC [people of color] are far more likely to be convicted + sentenced longer than White Americans for similar crimes,” she tweeted. “Our system routinely criminalizes poverty + exonerates wealth.”

As BizPac Review reported, President Joe Biden handed out thousands of pardons for marijuana-related crimes.

“As I’ve said before, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana,” the president tweeted in Oct. 2022.

And, in 2018, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) claimed, “more people [are] locked up for low-level offenses on marijuana than for all violent crimes in this country,” according to Fox News.

Keith Humphreys, an American psychologist and Esther Ting Memorial professor at Stanford University, echoed Smith’s assessment, saying the data does not back up those claims.

“It’s been a longtime talking point, particularly around cannabis legalization, to say our prisons are full of pot smokers and nonviolent drug offenders,” Humphreys told Fox News Digital. “It’s just something that has never been true, certainly for cannabis. You can get a night in a jail still for cannabis but going to prison is pretty much impossible anymore, not that it ever was possible.”

Even in the 1980s, when crack cocaine was decimating communities, Humphreys noted, only about one if five prisoners were behind bars on some form of drug charge.

The prisons are overcrowded, Humphreys explained, because “violent crime” is on the rise.

The data does back this claim up.

A staggering 62.4% of state prisoners are serving sentences for violent crimes, Humphreys said. The remaining 40% includes people who previously committed violent crimes or who pleaded down from a violent offense to a lesser offense.

Those who are imprisoned for simple possession charges likely “pled down” to that lesser charge to escape one more serious, Smith agreed, especially if it’s their first offense.

“For instance, a lot of times if someone is potentially facing possession with intent to distribute charges, which carry much higher penalties … the prosecutor might plead down to simple possession charges in that case,” he said. “So, most of the time, I would suspect that’s what’s going on.”

Booms in violent crime has historically been at the heart of prisons’ overcrowding problems, Smith explained.

“Between 1960 and 1990, the rate of violent crime in the United States surged by over 35%,” he said. “It’s the biggest increase in our country’s history, and so it’s that increase in violent crime that was the increase in incarceration and the increasing of incarceration rates. It’s not minor drug offenses or really drug offenses, period.”

Between 1980 and 2012, when there were 43 million U.S. drug arrests, there were a total of 445 million arrests made, proving, says Smith, that “drug arrests accounted for less than 10% of all arrests over that roughly 32-year period.”

Criminal justice reform advocates will argue that violent crime is up because drugs are illegal, but Humphreys is quick to blow a hole in that narrative.

“The problem with that reasoning is that the No. 1 drug involved in violence in the United States by a big margin is alcohol, which is, of course, legal,” he said. “So, it doesn’t follow at all – from this data – that this just proves their point all along.”

“No,” he stated. “it doesn’t really.”

The left simply ignores the BJS data that shows a close connection between drugs and violence, according to Hannah E. Meyers, a fellow and director of policing and public safety at the Manhattan Institute.

“Those who decry how the U.S. justice system treats drug offenders also ignore the disturbingly tight relationship between drug offending and other, often violent, offending,” she told Fox News Digital. “An earlier BJS survey found that 22.4% of drug offenders in state prison were violent recidivists and 26.4% had three to five prior sentences. Over 13% of sentenced drug offenders had six to 10 prior sentences.”

Citing another BJS survey, Fox News noted: “Of all state drug offenders, 28% of those released in 2012 were rearrested for a violent offense within five years; released drug offenders were more likely to be arrested again within five years for a violent offense than were those released for homicide or rape.”

“Therefore, the new BJS data only adds to a longstanding picture: it is not possible to simply separate out offenders held in for drug possession – or even for all drug crime – and safely reduce the U.S. prison population by showing them lenience,” Meyers said. “Not only do they make up a small and diminishing proportion of a concurrently shrinking number of total state inmates, drug offending and violent offending are deeply interwoven among the prison population.”

Even the left’s argument that 46.7% of federal prisoners are doing time for drug charges is “dishonest,” according to Humphreys, as people aren’t brought up on federal drug charges for a bag of weed. A federal conviction means they were likely hooked up on a serious trafficking charge.

It’s a very unusual set of things that bring people into federal prison,” Humphreys said. “Also, violence is not charged at the federal level, hardly ever. Murder is charged almost entirely by states. Even if you average that in with state data you still, because it’s so small, you still end up with the conclusion that there’s really not that many people in prison for drugs.”

And letting everyone imprisoned for drug charges in state facilities would only increase the “racial disparities” in the prison population, Humphreys argued, because “people in state prison for drug crimes are disproportionately whiter.”

“So, what that means is if you just tomorrow release every drug prisoner in the United States,” he said, “racial disparities in imprisonment would go up, not down.”


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