PolitiFact: Fact-checking the July 10 Sunday shows

Published July 11, 2016

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.

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