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Former House Speaker John Boehner cited bum prison stats among reasons for changing pot stance

Former House Speaker John Boehner used a liberal myth to explain why he changed his stance on marijuana. (David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

Last week, former House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced he had changed his stance on the legalization of marijuana and joined the board of Acreage Holdings, a New York-based multistate organization dedicated to the legalization of marijuana.

Among the reasons Boehner cited for his change of heart on marijuana was that nonviolent people whose only crime was marijuana possession have "filled up our jails," a myth often touted by liberals.

“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,” Boehner told Bloomberg.

Dave Schnittger, a spokesman for Boehner, pointed to a 2017 Newsweek report that said that pot possession accounted “for more than 5 percent of all incarcerations, or roughly 100,000 Americans.” He said Boehner based his assertion on the statistics in that article, which has been recently updated.

As it turns out, the Newsweek article had fouled up some statistics it borrowed from a 2017 Washington Post story.

What are the facts?

Drug convictions of all types totaled 19,750 in 2017, but only 92 people, or one-half of a percent, received sentences for "simple possession" of marijuana, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Of the entire states' prison population, only 3.4 percent were jailed for all types of drug possession as of December 2015, Justice Department statistics showed.

Violent crime offenders, which include rape, robbery, and murder, make up 54.5 percent of the prison population. Property crime offenders make up about 18 percent, and public order offenders account for nearly 12 percent.

What else?

Jonathan P. Caulkins, professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, told The Washington Post that it's important to note that simple marijuana possession can lead to prison in several ways,  including probation or parole violation and plea bargaining down a lesser crime.

“He [Boehner] is wrong,” Caulkins told the news outlet. “He is parroting the pro-legalization party line that has been making such claims for a long time. The standard story that the legalization lobby pushes is very rare for prison, and is not terribly common for jail.”

Schnittger, who initially defended Boehner's claims, later said, “It’s no secret that America’s jails are overcrowded; Speaker Boehner’s point was that the incarceration of nonviolent individuals for possession of small amounts of cannabis is contributing to the overcrowding problem and that adjusting our laws to reflect changing public sentiment on the issue, as many states today are already doing, can help address the problem.

“The speaker is not attempting to make the claim that incarcerations for marijuana possession are the primary reason America’s prisons are overcrowded," Schnittger added. "He is arguing that our prisons are overcrowded, and that reducing the number of people who are incarcerated for something that many Americans today no longer even believe should be illegal is a logical place to look when we’re looking for ways to stop ‘filling up our jails.’”

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