At Wednesday night's Republican Presidential Debate, Carly Fiorina said, "We have the highest incarceration rates in the world. Two-thirds of the people in our prisons are there for non-violent offenses, mostly drug related." Whether this is a whopping falsehood or a misleading half-truth depends on what she meant by "our."

By "our prisons" did she mean the federal government's prisons or the nation's prisons as a whole? It makes a big difference.

Most people watching the debate probably thought she meant the nation's prisons as a whole. With that meaning of "our," the statement would be a whopper. It would deserve Four Pinocchios or a Pants On Fire or however a particular fact-checking site describes a peg-the-meter falsehood.

Coincidentally, the Bureau of Justice Statistics just released a new report on Thursday: Prisoners in 2014. Look at Tables 11 and 12, on pages 16 and 17.

There are nearly seven times as many prisoners in state prisons as in federal. So when we talk about the nation's prisoners we are mostly talking about state prisoners. A majority are in for violent offenses: murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery, assault, and a small category of "other violent." Only 15.7% have drug offenses as their "most serious offense."  

The notion that the nation's "incarceration rate" comes from locking up supposedly non-violent drug offenders is a pervasive yet patently false and dangerous myth. The proximity of the statement about "non-violent offenses, mostly drug related" to the statement about incarceration rate strongly implies that is what she meant.

A little bit earlier, the discussion was about federalism and drug laws. It is conceivable that by "our prisons" Ms. Fiorina meant the federal government's prisons. The picture there is far different because the jurisdiction is different, but that does not mean that the federal prisons are bursting with harmless, fuzzy teddy bears.

Comparatively few people are in federal prison for murder, robbery, and so forth because these are not generally federal offenses. Murder in D.C. is a federal offense, and so is robbery of a federally insured bank, but for the most part violent offenses are state offenses and punished in the state systems.

A very slim majority of inmates in federal prisons have drug offenses listed as the most serious offense. But what kind of drug offenders does the federal government go after? Certainly not personal use to any significant extent. Not the corner dealer either. The drug dealers that draw the attention of federal prosecutors tend to be the larger-scale operators. They are often in criminal organizations that frequently employ violence in their operation. Those violent crimes may be difficult to impossible to prove, as witnesses understandably do not want to testify against organized crime, but possession of large quantities of drugs is an easy case to prove if caught in the act. For a drug possession offense, the arresting officer and the lab tech may be the only witnesses needed.

People in federal prison for "drug offenses" are not necessarily, or even usually, harmless, non-violent people. They are often among the most dangerous and violent criminals we have.

What about people in federal prison for "immigration" offenses? Are those people who sneaked across the border to pick lettuce? No, hardly ever. Many will be people who reentered the United States after being deported for a violent offense. Others will be smugglers, a group notorious for abandoning people to their deaths in the desert when the going gets tough.

Another 15.8% percent are in for "weapons" offenses. What are those? Among the most common are the federal crimes of using guns in crimes of violence or for drug trafficking or of possessing a gun after conviction of a crime of violence. Are the people in federal prison for these crimes "non-violent"? Very often not.

The bottom line is that most of the people in prison in America deserve to be there. The idea that the national "incarceration rate" is the result of locking up harmless people who can be released with no danger to innocent people is a dangerous myth.

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Cross-posted from the Crime and Consequences blog.