Former House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, claimed, “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.” Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, tweeted, “More than 2 million in jail, mostly black and brown, many for holding a small amount of marijuana.”
The suggestion, however, is wrong.
It is true that a lot of people are arrested each year for marijuana. In 2016, nearly 600,000 people were arrested for simple marijuana possession. These arrests on their own can create huge problems — leading to criminal records that can make it harder to get a job, housing, or financial aid for college.
But these arrests are only a small part of America’s mass incarceration problem.
First, most people in jail or prison are not in for drug charges at all. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, around 21 percent of people in jail or prison are in there for a drug crime, including marijuana possession. So the great majority of people are not incarcerated due to drugs. And, contrary to Boehner’s claim about nonviolent offenders, about 42 percent of people in jail or prison are in there for violent crimes — making violent offenses the single biggest driver of incarceration out of all offense categories.
How many of the 21 percent of drug offenders are in for marijuana possession?
Unfortunately, we don’t have good data for jails,