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The Myth of the Nonviolent Drug Offender

The Myth of the Nonviolent Drug Offender


After President Biden pardoned Americans convicted of federal marijuana possession last week, reform advocates praised his action as a “historic” step away from mass incarceration, while critics lamented it as another blow to public safety. The truth is somewhat less momentous: the pardons affect only about 6,500 people, none of whom is currently in prison, and drug crimes account for only a small portion of America’s prison population.

The extreme reactions on both sides are consistent with the public’s warped perceptions of the effects of drug enforcement on our criminal-justice system, which activists and the media have propagated through books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and documentaries like 13th. This component of the prison-reform narrative is disingenuous and distracts from the more pressing work of finding solutions to violent crime.

Of the approximately 145,000 people in federal prisons and 1,040,000 people in state prisons, less than 3.5 percent are incarcerated for a conviction related to drug possession. Even when one expands the scope beyond mere possession to all other types of drug offenses (many of which are associated with violent cartels and gangs), the proportion rises only to 18 percent.

Read the full commentary in the City Journal.