It is well documented that far too many people are arrested for marijuana possession in the US each year and there are certainly people serving life for non-violent cannabis offenses. Despite this, the claims made by John Boehner that prisons are "literally filled up" with non-violent cannabis offenders may not be the case.
According to The Washington Post, while nearly 600,000 people are arrested each year for marijuana possession, relativity few of those arrested are sent to prison. The Department of Justice doesn't have stats on the number of people incarcerated for marijuana possession in state prisons, but they do keep track of the total number of drug possession convicts. Even when lumped together, the number of people in the prison system for drug possession equals 3.4% of the total population, with the biggest portion of prisoners (at 54.4%) serving time for violent crimes.
The numbers for marijuana convictions on the federal level are more clearly defined, with 92 people sentenced for cannabis possession out of a total of nearly 20,000 drug convictions. That means only 0.5% of people incarcerated on drug offenses were because of marijuana possession.
"He is wrong,” Jonathan Caulkins a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University said in response to Boehner's statement. “He is parroting the pro-legalization party line that has been making such claims for a long time. The standard story that the legalization lobby pushes is very rare for prison, and is not terribly common for jail."
Dave Schnittger, a Boehner spokesman, defended Boehner's claims by saying that he was trying to make a statement about the overcrowding of American prisons.
"It’s no secret that America’s jails are overcrowded; Speaker Boehner’s point was that the incarceration of nonviolent individuals for possession of small amounts of cannabis is contributing to the overcrowding problem and that adjusting our laws to reflect changing public sentiment on the issue, as many states today are already doing, can help address the problem," Schnittger said. "The speaker is not attempting to make the claim that incarcerations for marijuana possession are the primary reason America’s prisons are overcrowded. He is arguing that our prisons are overcrowded, and that reducing the number of people who are incarcerated for something that many Americans today no longer even believe should be illegal is a logical place to look when we’re looking for ways to stop 'filling up our jails'."
In fact, some states have already recognized this issue and have begun to look at pardoning past marijuana convictions. Still, the fact that non-violent marijuana offenders can be sentenced to life without parole is an acceptable practice needs to be fixed sooner rather than later.