Criminal justice came up for only a few minutes during Wednesday night’s GOP debate, but the discussion lasted just long enough for Carly Fiorina to utter one of the most persistent and dangerous myths about the country’s mass incarceration problem: that most of the people in American prisons are there for nonviolent offenses.
“We do need criminal justice reform,” Fiorina said. “We have the highest incarceration rates in the world. Two-thirds of the people in our prisons are there for nonviolent offenses, mostly drug-related. It is clearly not working.”
Though Fiorina was correct that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world—no other country comes close—the rest of her statement was false. In fact, when you look at the roughly 1.5 million people currently doing time in state and federal prisons, only about 300,000 of them are there primarily because of drug offenses, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. About half the state prison population—which, at 1.3 million people, represents the lion’s share of the country’s prisoners—is made up of individuals who are classified as violent offenders. (According to research by Fordham Law School professor John Pfaff, the percentage of drug offenders in state prisons peaked in 1990 at 22 percent and has been in decline since—meaning that, even when the percentage of drug offenders in state prisons was at its peak, roughly 4 out of 5 inmates were there due to a non-drug offense.)
The reason Fiorina’s misstatement matters is that it makes it seem like ending mass incarceration will be a lot easier than it actually will be. She is far from alone in perpetuating this idea—President Obama has done it too, along with just about every other mainstream politician who has expressed support for criminal justice reform in recent years. But the truth is that if we want to significantly reduce the prison population, politicians have to be willing to make the criminal justice system less harsh toward violent offenders in addition to nonviolent ones, or at least rethink how we define the two categories. So far the political will for this just isn’t there. But the more our leaders pretend like it won’t be necessary to develop it, the less likely it is that the problem they claim to care about will ever be solved.