Critics against mass incarceration of prisoners serving time for small amount of marijuana claimed for years that if the criminal justice system decriminalized marijuana, prisons across the nation wouldn’t have to deal with overflow of prisoners doing time for such a minute amount of pot. Thus, prisons would have room for violent criminals if states just take heed and legalize marijuana for people to use.
What Politicians Say
Prominent political players, Republicans and Democrats, have suggested that the prohibition of marijuana is to blame for mass incarceration. Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat from Hawaii, recently tweeted, “More than 2 million in jail, mostly black and brown, many for holding a small amount of marijuana.”
Former House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, now working as a lobbyist for the pot industry, said, “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 began to scratch your head. We have literally filled up our jails with people who are nonviolent and frankly do not belong there,” Boehner lamented.
Speaking at an NAACP meeting, then-President Barack Obama insisted, “the real reason our prison population is so high over the last few decades, we’ve locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before.”
“The war on drugs,” Obama railed, “is just a continuation of America’s long history of inequality in the criminal justice system.”
Politicians Ignore Truth
What’s wrong with these statements made by Obama, Boehner and Schatz, is this: They’re all wrong!
Critics and legal marijuana advocates argued for many years that drug arrests for weed and small amount of crack cocaine led to mass incarceration of Americans.
So how can evidence prove marijuana offenders doesn’t cause mass incarceration in today’s American prisons? First let’s use simple math. FBI and U.S. Justice statistics doesn’t inflate numbers of people arrested each year for marijuana possession. For example, in 2016, nearly 600,000 Americans charged with marijuana, only represent a smaller fraction of America’s mass incarceration problem.
Real Driver of Mass Incarceration
Now are you ready for this? Of those numbers of people either in jail or prison were not serving time for drug related crimes at all. Newly released statistics show the driving force behind mass incarceration are violent crimes!
And here’s why.
A study conducted by Prison Policy Initiative indicate only 21 percent of people in prison or jail were there for a drug crime, including marijuana possession. Therefore based on Prison Policy’s estimated percentage, a majority of people are not incarcerated on drug charges. The Prison Policy study also undercut John Boehner’s claim of how the system filled up prisons with with nonviolent offenders. The study further showed that 42 percent of people in prison or jail are there for violent crimes – thus making violent offenses the single largest contributor of incarceration among all criminal offenses.
Based on nationwide state prison data the statistics show in 2015, 3.4 percent of all state prisoners were serving time for drug possession and that 11.7 percent were in prison for other drug related crimes. So what does these numbers convey? It simply demonstrate how a fraction of prisoners are locked up due to illegal narcotics and that the number of offenders serving time for violent crimes dwarf those serving time for dope.
Sentencing Commission report
There’s more numbers to disprove the argument from legal marijuana advocates that drugs are responsible for mass incarceration of people. A U.S. Sentencing Commission report, 92 percent of almost 20,000 people – fewer than half percent – that were sentenced on drug charges during fiscal year 2017 – were locked down for simple marijuana possession. And, overall, dope cases made up less than a third of cases reported by Sentencing Commission during same year(2017). As an exception, though, not all of the 20,000 people were sent to prison; some people got probation terms.
Nationwide Drug Arrests
Marijuana accounted for approximately half of the 1.5 million drug arrests nationwide in 2014. Prison and jail statistics can sometimes differ slightly, depending on how the numbers were compiled and how accurate those numbers are. Still there’s no credible evidence available to prove the aforementioned numbers contributed to mass incarceration throughout American prisons.
Out of approximately 1.5 million people in state or federal prisons, the Prison Policy study report said only about 40,000 are incarcerated for a marijuana offense. A majority of this group mostly sold drugs in large quantities.
Critics could easily argue whether even street-level dope slingers who sell ounces or pounds of marijuana should get lengthy sentences. But this group, the study has shown, constitute less than three percent of the prison population.
Fordham University Criminal Justice expert John Pfaff offer concrete evidence that drug arrests is not the cause for mass incarceration. Pfaff is the author of the book: Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration And How to Achieve Real Reform. Interviewed by a Vox Media reporter, Pfaff’s says the “Standard Story” of mass incarceration was hugely publicized by the Michelle Alexander book: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age Of Colorblindness. “It’s not drug offenses that are driving mass incarceration, but violent ones,” Pfaff explained during interview with Vox reporter German Lopez.
To make the case in her book how drug arrests contributed to mass incarceration of prisoners in the U.S., Alexander writes, “The impact of the drug war has been astounding. In less than thirty years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for majority of the increase.” Alexander further writes, “the uncomfortable reality is that arrests and convictions for drug offenses – not violent crimes – have propelled mass incarceration.”
Criminal justice expert Mr Pfaff disgrees. He insists that Alexander’s narrative is skewed with incorrect stats.
“In reality only about 16 percent of state prisoners are serving time on drug charges and that very few of them, perhaps only around 5 or 6 percent of that group, are both low level and nonviolent.” Pfaff further points out, “At the same time, more than half of all people in state prisons have been convicted of a violent crime.”
Unlike Alexander’s questionable documentation in her book, Pfaff’s stats hit the right mark. U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics recent data reported that in state prisons, where approximately 87 percent of inmates are confined in prison, close to 53 percent of these inmates are serving time for violent crimes like murder, manslaughter, robbery, rape, assault, including other violent related offenses.
We must admit marijuana legalization both recreational and medical benefits many states with tax money. Many people are die-hard weed smokers. And police arrests of pot users has declined significantly in states where pot is legal. What these benefits haven’t done is cease racial disparities when it comes to marijuana arrests.
According to ACLU:
“The aggressive enforcement of marijuana possession laws needlessly ensnares hundreds of thousands of people into the criminal justice system and wastes billions of taxpayers’ dollars. What’s more, it is carried out with staggering racial bias. Despite being a priority for police departments nationwide, the War on Marijuana failed to reduce marijuana use and availability and diverted resources that could be better invested in our communities.”
In other words, for the system and citizens to fully benefit from the progressive move to legalize pot in every state, police must stop utilizing racial bias when investigating drug activities. They must treat blacks the same as whites who consume the same amount of marijuana as African Americans.
For more details about racial disparities in marijuana arrests, click the link here:http://norml.org/
And also click this link to read more about Mass Incarceration.
Investigative Journalist Clarence Walker can be reached at: [email protected]