Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy) | Tampa Bay Times

PolitiFact: Fact-checking the July 10 Sunday shows

Politicians and pundits searched for answers Sunday following the police-involved shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota, and the deadly shooting in Dallas that killed five police officers.

On Meet the Press, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said the federal government should invest in law enforcement, but it has to be the right kind of investment.

"There is a challenge with America where we have invested, unfortunately, in a war on drugs, which has been profoundly painful to our nation, with a 500 percent increase in incarceration in our country, disproportionately affecting poor and disproportionately affecting minorities," Booker said.

President Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs in the early 1970s, and about 10 years later President Ronald Reagan strengthened the effort. We decided to look into Booker's claim that these stricter drug policies led to a 500 percent increase in incarceration.

We found that the number of people incarcerated for drug-related offenses has increased dramatically in the past 40 years, as has the overall incarcerated population. But it's hard to prove a causal relationship. Booker's claim rates Mostly True.

A spokesman said Booker's statistic comes from the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform advocacy organization. It says the current incarcerated population is 2.2 million — including federal prisons, state prisons and local jails — which is a 500 percent growth over the past 40 years. Experts told us that the Sentencing Project's statistics are credible.

The state and federal prison population grew from 218,466 in 1974 to 1,508,636 in 2014, which is a nearly 600 percent increase. For comparison, the overall United States population has increased just 51 percent since 1974.

The state and federal prison population remained fairly stable through the early 1970s, until the war on drugs began. Since then, it has increased sharply every year, particularly when Reagan expanded the policy effort in the 1980s, until about 2010.

So it seems Booker has his numbers right, but how much of this increase is a direct result of the tougher drug laws? The effort resulted in the Drug Enforcement Agency's establishment, as well as policies such as mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and new asset forfeiture rules.

It's hard to say exactly how much of the increase can be attributed to these policies because it's difficult to isolate the impact to any one cause, experts told us.

That being said, "a lot of people attribute the increase in incarceration to the war on drugs," said Nancy La Vigne, director of the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center. "While it's much more complicated than that, I suppose most would agree that it was the single biggest driver."

In 1980, about 41,000 people were incarcerated for drug crimes, according to the Sentencing Project. In 2014, that number was about 488,400 — a 1,000 percent increase.

More people are admitted to prisons for drug crimes each year than either violent or property crimes, found Jonathan Rothwell, a senior economist at Gallup. So drug prosecution is a big part of the mass incarceration story, he said.

Rothwell told PolitiFact he thinks some of the increase would have happened regardless, but Booker is right to focus on the drug war.

Others see it differently. John F. Pfaff, a professor at Fordham Law School, has argued that the impact of the war on drugs is greatly exaggerated, finding that drug crime only accounts for about 20 percent of prison growth since 1980.

"In reality, a majority of prison growth has come from locking up violent offenders, and a large majority of those admitted to prison never serve time for a drug charge, at least not as their primary charge," he wrote last year.

Setting standards

Is there a link between police killing people during routine patrols and the sheer number of police departments in the country? Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey argued Sunday that there is.

"There are approximately 18,000 departments in the United States," Ramsey said on Meet the Press. "I would try to cut the number in half in the next 10 years or so, because you're always going to have these kinds of issues as long as you have this many departments with different policies, procedures, training and the like."

The numbers largely back Ramsey up. His claim rates Mostly True.

A 2015 federal policing task force report found that there are 17,985 U.S. police agencies.

That includes everything from college campus patrols to sheriffs, local police and federal agents. For strictly local law enforcement, police and sheriff departments with armed officers, the total is closer to 15,400, according to the latest report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

That's still a big number and half of those departments have fewer than 10 officers.

These smaller units face some real challenges.

David Weisburd, executive director of the Center for Evidence-based Crime Policy at George Mason University, said while some do fine work, the quality ranges widely.

"There is little consistency in training or procedures across them," Weisburd said. "There are many departments that simply poorly train and lead their officers."

Turnover is a common complaint. The police chief in Canon City, Colo., wrote in a 2013 article that the combination of rising suburban crime and limited budgets meant "agency personnel are stretched in many cases beyond the breaking point, making retention of quality personnel increasingly challenging."

The biggest urban agencies demand more education for their officers. About 30 percent of the very largest departments require at least a two-year college degree. In the smallest communities, only 10 percent do.

Read the full fact-checks at

The statement

The war on drugs resulted in "a 500 percent increase in incarceration in our country, disproportionately affecting poor and disproportionately affecting minorities."

Cory Booker, in an interview on "Meet the Press"

The ruling

PolitiFact ruling: Mostly True

Booker has his numbers right, looking at incarcerated population growth over the past 40 years. It's hard to conclusively attribute the rapid rise to the war on drugs, but many experts believe that it is a major factor, if not the primary factor. We rate this claim Mostly True.

The statement

"There are approximately 18,000 (police) departments in the United States."

Charles Ramsey, in an interview on "Meet the Press"

The ruling

PolitiFact ruling: Mostly True

If you include every college campus security department, tribal land unit, sheriff office, local police department, state police, and every federal agency, you get to 17,985. In terms of the most common local law enforcement agencies, that is sheriff and local police departments, the number is about 15,400. We rate this claim Mostly True.

PolitiFact: Fact-checking the July 10 Sunday shows 07/10/16 [Last modified: Sunday, July 10, 2016 10:41pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Plant City farmer hopes robot pickers can save strawberry industry from shrinking labor force


    PLANT CITY — If current trends continue, the region's status as a major strawberry producer will depend in large part on what happens in Mexico.

    Strawberry pickers work during the daytime, when fruit is more likely to bruise. Machine pickers can work at night. The owner of Wish Farms in Plant City is developing automated pickers and hopes to see them at work on a widespread basis in five years. [Times file]
  2. Charlie Crist asking local youth for advice on how to stop deadly car theft epidemic

    Public Safety

    ST. PETERSBURG — U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist is meeting with local children Wednesday night to get their thoughts on how to stop the deadly juvenile auto theft epidemic plaguing Pinellas County.

    From left: St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, Congressman Charlie Crist, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway during a meeting earlier this year to discuss the car theft epidemic among Pinellas youth. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
  3. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman sells house for $3 million to new player

    Real Estate

    TAMPA — Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman's multi-million Davis Islands home is staying in the Lightning family. Yzerman sold his 6,265-square-foot house Monday to new defenseman Dan Girardi for $3 million.

    The Davis Islands home of Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman sold for $3 million Monday to Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi. | [Courtesy of Hi Res Media]
  4. Hernando commissioners propose tax-rate reduction as budget talks continue

    Local Government

    BROOKSVILLE — The typical budget battle between the Hernando County Commission and Sheriff Al Nienhuis has largely been averted this summer, except for a dust-up over how the sheriff has accounted for federal inmate money. But a minor skirmish did break out this week.

    Hernando County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes has suggested a small rollback in the proposed property tax rate for the 2017-18 fiscal year and proposes that it be equally shared by the county's operations and the sheriff.
  5. Danny Rolling killed five in Gainesville 27 years ago this week


    The following story appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on October 26, 2006, the day after Danny Rolling was put to death. Also included are photos covering the period from the time of the murders to the day of Rolling execution.

    Rolling Executed