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By Maryalice Gill September 22, 2011

Gary Johnson says U.S. prisons are packed with small-time drug dealers

Presidential candidate Gary Johnson, a longtime advocate of legalizing marijuana, says U.S. prisons are packed with too many small-time drug dealers.

In a meeting with the editorial board of The Telegraph in Nashua, N.H., the former New Mexico governor explained some of the reasoning for his controversial position:

"We now have 2.3 million people behind bars in this country, we have the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world," Johnson said. "The majority of those people behind bars are there because they sold small amounts of drugs."

We'll examine his claim in two parts: Is the U.S. really a global leader in incarcerating citizens? And are small amounts of drugs such as marijuana really to blame?

Johnson’s New Hampshire Communications Director Matt Simon pointed us to some sources behind Johnson’s claim, citing data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and World Prison Brief, a publication of the International Centre for Prison Studies at the King's College School of Law in London.

We checked the Bureau of Justice Statistics figures and confirmed there were 2.3 million prisoners in local jails and state and federal prisons at the end of 2009.

The World Prison Brief lists prison population rates per 100,000 residents of each country.

The U.S. tops the list with 743 prisoners per 100,000 residents, followed by Rwanda with 595, the Russian Federation with 559, Georgia with 547 and the Virgin Islands (USA) with 539.

So Johnson is right with the first part of his claim about the total and the top ranking.

But do small-time drug dealers make up the majority of U.S. prisoners?

It depends whether you consider local, state or federal inmates, according to Tracy Snell, a statistician with the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics only investigates information regarding offense types every 5-7 years through inmate surveys, Snell said. So we had to go back to 2002 and 2004 for the most recent data that included the three levels of incarceration to determine what percentage of inmates were held for selling drugs.

The data reveal:

* Local level: 12.1 percent, which is far short of a majority.
* State level: 14.6 percent, also far short of a majority.
* Federal level: 50 percent.

Because the overwhelming majority of all prisoners are held at the state and local level, the number imprisoned for drug offenses is significantly short of a majority. Also, those numbers include all drug sales under the category drug trafficking. The percentages would likely be even smaller if they were limited to sales of small amounts of drugs the way Johnson suggested.

In our correspondence with Johnson’s campaign, Communications Director Simon admitted the error.

"After communicating with a few experts, I can now confirm that the third claim is inaccurate," Simon said. "I believe the real number of those incarcerated for all drug-related crimes is closer to 25 percent of the overall population of incarcerated persons.

"Johnson may have been thinking specifically of the federal inmate population when he made the statement, and although there's difficulty in defining ‘small amounts,’ the statement is closer to being true if applied to inmates in federal prisons."

Gov. Johnson also admitted his need to clarify, Simon said.

"I just spoke with Gov. Johnson about his error and he said, ’I stand corrected, thanks!’ so I'm sure he won't repeat this claim," Simon said.

So Johnson was correct to say that the U.S. has highest incarceration rate in the world, with an estimated total of 2.3 million inmates,but he was wrong that the majority of those imprisoned are being held for selling small amounts of drugs.

We rate Johnson’s claim Half True.

Our Sources

The Nashua Telegraph, "Gary Johnson Edit Board," Sept. 19, 2011.

The New York Times, "U.S. prison population dwarfs that of other nation," April 23, 2008.

International Centre of Prison Studies, "World Prison Brief," Sept. 22, 2011.

Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Correctional Populations in the United States, 2009," Dec. 2010, accessed Sept. 22, 2011.

Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Drug Use and Dependence, State and Federal Prisoners, 2004" accessed Sept. 22, 2011.

Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Profile of Jail Inmates, 2002," accessed Sept. 22, 2011.

Interview with Tracy Snell, statistician with U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sept. 22, 2011.

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Gary Johnson says U.S. prisons are packed with small-time drug dealers

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