What Democrats get wrong about prison reform

For all the attention we pay to people convicted of drug crimes, they make up only 15 percent of our state prison populations. Over half the people serving time in state prisons have been convicted of a violent crime; half of those convicted of violence—or more than 25 percent of all prisoners—have been convicted of the most serious crimes: murder, manslaughter or sexual assault. Senator Booker (rightly) disagreed with locking people up for life on drug charges, but that’s something that really happens only in the relatively small federal prison system. In state prisons, which hold nearly 90 percent of the nation’s 1.5 million prisoners, almost 95 percent of inmates serving long sentences have been convicted of serious violence, not drugs; about half or more of such inmates were convicted of murder or manslaughter.

All this actually understates the extent to which it is our response to violence, not drugs, that drives mass incarceration. That 15 percent number means that 15 percent of the people in prison were convicted of a drug crime; the underlying facts might be more complicated. Someone, say, arrested for assault and found to have drugs on him at the time of the arrest might agree to a deal in which he pleads guilty to just the drug charge. In the data, this person shows up as a “nonviolent drug offender,” even if the prosecutor demanded prison time on the drug offense only because of the uncharged violence.