Monday, November 9, 2015

Hillary Clinton Edges Out Bernie Sanders for the Most Absurd Comment about Prisons and the ‘War on Drugs’ While Carly Fiorina and President Obama Lag Far Behind --According to the Washington Post Fact Checker

Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post Fact Checker, checked out the statements from four prominent politicians about drug user incarcerations and ranked them from most outlandish to least egregious characterizing Hillary Clinton’s as Absurd (4 Pinocchios), Bernie Sanders’ as Confused (3 Pinocchios), Carly Fiorina’s as Correct for Federal Prisons (2 Pinocchios), and President Obama’s as Correct for shear numbers but not for proportion (1 Pinocchios).

Here is what each said and how the Fact Checker graded them. 

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

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

The Fact Checker found Hillary’s statement “simply laughable” so her campaign did not even bother to offer a defense.  Hence, Clinton earned Four Pinocchios for her “absurd” suggestion that prisons are overflowing with marijuana convicts. 

      Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), remarks at Democratic debate, Oct. 1 

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


Sanders confuses “arrests” with being sent to jail as most of the arrests do NOT lead to prison.  In the entire federal system just 187 inmates were sentenced for simple drug possession — of which only 75 were jailed for marijuana possession. Almost all drug offenders were convicted of drug trafficking.  Hence, Sanders earned Three Pinocchios for confusing arrests with jail sentences and Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton’s discussion on the subject is described by the Fact Checker as “almost a parody of the issue.” 

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

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

Fiorina is on target for federal prisons as more than half of all federal prison inmates were convicted of drug trafficking, often for dealing cocaine, and adding in other nonviolent offenses, such as property and immigration, you get to two-thirds of the federally sentenced offenders.

Fiorina at least can point to data backing up the general thrust of her statement but she still earned Two Pinocchios because her statement, while correct for federal prisons, was off when state prisons are added in. 

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

“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.”

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 (he appears to be talking about both) and he makes the connection between drug offenders and rising prison populations too stark reaching back several decades.  His accretion here “is clearly wrong” as the proportion of Federal and State prison inmates who were drug law violators has been pretty nearly flat at 20 percent since 1990 as the number of people in prison on non-drug offenses has risen just as fast as drug law violators so the proportion has held constant.

About 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 so locking up violent offenders explains 60 percent of the growth, to just 14 percent for drug offenders.  Any growth has come from admitting more people to prison, not from longer sentences as the president asserted and time served has barely changed in federal prisons, according to Justice Department data.

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.


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