John Boehner’s claim that ‘we have literally filled up our jails’ with people for minor marijuana possession

“When you look at the number of people in our state and federal penitentiaries, who are there for possession of small amounts of cannabis, you begin to really scratch your head. We have literally filled up our jails with people who are nonviolent and frankly do not belong there.”
—Former House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), in an interview with Bloomberg News, April 11, 2018

Boehner, who as soon as opposed marijuana legalization, made headlines lately when he introduced he had joined the advisory board of Acreage Holdings, a multi-state cannabis firm with holdings in each medical and adult-use states. His shift exhibits that acceptance of marijuana use has more and more turn into mainstream.

But that doesn’t imply the information have adopted. In explaining his determination, Boehner repeated a fable — that the United States has “filled up our jails” with nonviolent people whose solely crime was that they possessed marijuana.

The Facts

There’s no query that within the United States, many people are arrested for marijuana possession. Nearly 600,000 people a yr are arrested for marijuana possession, or multiple marijuana possession arrest each minute, according to estimates from Justice Department data.

But comparatively few of these arrested finish up in jail. Most prisoners are in state methods, and the Department of Justice doesn't break down precisely the share of people who're in jail for marijuana possession — simply all forms of drug possession, together with exhausting medicine similar to heroin. The federal knowledge, nevertheless, does present that breakdown.

So what do we discover? In the state correctional establishments, solely three.four % of prisoners have been in jail for all kinds of drug possession as of Dec. 31, 2015, according to the Justice Department. While Boehner claimed that the prisons have been filled with nonviolent prisoners, the info present that 54.5 % are in jail for violent crimes akin to homicide, rape and theft and 18 % contain property crimes; one other 11.6 % are in jail for public order offenses.

In the federal system, the numbers for marijuana possession are astonishingly low. Only 92 people in 2017 have been sentenced for marijuana possession within the federal system out of a complete of almost 20,000 drug convictions, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. That is one-half of 1 %. Out of all the drug possession fees, marijuana possession made up 43 % of all the drug possession instances.

If that ratio held true within the state jail inhabitants, that would imply about 19,000 prisoners for marijuana possession, out of 1.three million. That’s about 1.5 %.

Jonathan P. Caulkins, professor of public coverage at Carnegie Mellon University, famous that when reviewing the info, it’s necessary to recollect that there are a number of methods that easy marijuana possession can result in incarceration: It was a violation of probation or parole for one other conviction; it was a part of a cost discount down from a extra critical offense; it was a “third” strike beneath some three-strike legal guidelines (e.g., if on probation or parole, then a misdemeanor might be promoted to a felony so it may be a 3rd felony).

“He is wrong,” Caulkins stated. “He is parroting the pro-legalization party line that has been making such claims for a long time. The standard story that the legalization lobby pushes is very rare for prison, and is not terribly common for jail.”

Dave Schnittger, a Boehner spokesman, initially defended Boehner’s assertion by directing The Fact Checker to a 2017 report that appeared in Newsweek. The article, with out citing a supply, stated that marijuana possession accounts “for more than five percent of all incarcerations, or roughly 100,000 Americans.” He stated this text “was the basis for the speaker’s assertion.”

Since this was immediately contradicted by the Justice Department knowledge, we sought an evidence. It turned out that both by way of a reporting or modifying error, Newsweek garbled a statistic borrowed from a Washington Post article. After our inquiry, Newsweek shortly corrected the article to say that marijuana possession accounts for greater than 5 % of all arrests, not incarcerations.

In different phrases, Boehner relied on a bum information report with out looking for affirmation from an official supply.

“It’s no secret that America’s jails are overcrowded; Speaker Boehner’s point was that the incarceration of nonviolent individuals for possession of small amounts of cannabis is contributing to the overcrowding problem and that adjusting our laws to reflect changing public sentiment on the issue, as many states today are already doing, can help address the problem,” Schnittger stated. “The speaker is not attempting to make the claim that incarcerations for marijuana possession are the primary reason America’s prisons are overcrowded. He is arguing that our prisons are overcrowded, and that reducing the number of people who are incarcerated for something that many Americans today no longer even believe should be illegal is a logical place to look when we’re looking for ways to stop ‘filling up our jails.’”

The Pinocchio Test

We typically warn politicians that they need to not merely depend on a information report for info. The Newsweek report ought to have raised a purple flag to anybody who had studied the federal knowledge — and certainly it was incorrect. Kudos to Newsweek for shortly correcting the story.

Under no stretch of the creativeness has the United States “literally filled up our jails with people who are nonviolent.” Very few people finish up in jail for marijuana possession, and people who do are in all probability there for one other complicating issue. Boehner says he doesn’t personally indulge, inhaling solely Camel cigarettes. But both method, he’s blowing smoke right here. He earns Four Pinocchios.

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