How Many Drug Offenders Behind Bars: New York Times Distorts the Numbers 8/11/00

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In an August 10th article, "Number in Prison Population Grows Despite Crime Reduction," New York Times correspondent Fox Butterworth misread one important number, ignored another, and took an unwarranted swipe at sentencing and drug reform advocates.

The result is reporting that distorts and deceives.

Butterworth's story, based on statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), low-balls the number of people doing time for drug crimes. He lists 236,800 state prisoners and 30,470 federal prisoners doing time on drug charges in 1998, for a total of some 267,000.

There are two problems here. First, Butterworth misread the numbers on federal drug prisoners. The 30,470 figure was for 1990; the actual 1998 figure is 63,011. That is some 33,000 prisoners the Times missed. Incidentally, a comparison of the two numbers shows that the number of federal drug prisoners more than doubled in the 1990s.

Second, it ignores the number of people doing time in jails for drug crimes. As DRCNet reported two weeks ago (http://drcnet.org/wol/147.html#risingnumbers), the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice's study, "Poor Prescription: The Cost of Imprisoning Drug Offenders in the United States," found that when those people are counted, the number of people serving time for drug crimes climbs to 458,000.

Butterfield went out of his way to attack reformers, incorrectly writing that the BJS study "contradicted an assertion of advocates of prison and sentencing reform, who say most prisoners are locked up for drug offenses."

In fact, according to "Poor Prescription," "[n]early one in four persons (23.7%) imprisoned in the United States is currently imprisoned for a drug offense."

Similarly, in a Sentencing Project fact sheet (http://www.sentencingproject.org/brief/facts-pp.pdf), that sentencing reform organization wrote that "drug offenders constituted 23% of all 1996 state prison inmates and 60% of all 1996 federal prison inmates."

In demolishing his straw man, Butterfield also wrote that "people convicted of violent crimes accounted for 51% of the increase in state prison populations" during the 1990s. True enough, but in his eagerness to make his case, Butterfield managed to overlook the fact that in the last year of the study, 1998, the 107,000 new state prison drug offender admissions outnumbered new violent offender admissions, which stood at 104,000.

The New York Times can do better than this.

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Issue #149, 8/11/00 Marijuana Spraying Kills One, Sickens Hundreds, Mexican Villagers Report | Ecstasy Panic Spreads, Draconian New Laws Claim First Victims | Interview with DanceSafe's Emanuel Sferios | New Mexico Courts Face Consequences of Asset Forfeiture Double Jeopardy Ruling | California Medical Marijuana Fight Continues | Trial for Former Gubernatorial Candidate to Resume Next Week | How Many Drug Offenders Behind Bars: New York Times Distorts the Numbers | Drug Testing on the Job Loses Popularity, Tight Labor Market Cited | Job Listing: Pennsylvania Coalition to Save Lives Now | AlertS: Colombia, Mandatory Minimums, California, New York | HEA Campaign | Event Calendar | Editorial: America Needs Its Drug Users
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