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December 12, 2012 (The New York Times)

For Lesser Crimes, Rethinking Life Behind Bars

Stephanie George was 27 when police raided her house and found a lockbox where her boyfriend had stashed a half-kilogram of cocaine.

“Even though you have been involved in drugs and drug dealing,” Judge Roger Vinson told Ms. George 15 years ago, “your role has basically been as a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder but not actively involved in the drug dealing, so certainly in my judgment it does not warrant a life sentence.”

Yet he had no other option but to impose the mandatory life sentence without parole.

The Sentencing Project report, Trends in U.S. Corrections, visually shows the key developments in the criminal justice system over the past several decades that have led to the United States incarcerating more people than any other nation in the world.

 

Today, mass incarceration, fueled by mandatory sentences, appears increasingly dubious to both conservative and liberal social scientists. They point to evidence that mass incarceration is no longer a cost-effective way to make streets safer, and may even be promoting crime instead of suppressing it.

The criticism is resonating with state and federal officials, who have started taking steps to stop prison population growth.

Sentences for some drug crimes have been eased at the federal level and in states like New York, Kentucky and Texas. Judges in Ohio and South Carolina have been given more sentencing discretion. Californians voted in November to soften their state’s “three strikes” law to focus only on serious or violent third offenses. The use of parole has been expanded in Louisiana and Mississippi, and the United States Supreme Court has banned mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders.

Issue Area(s): Sentencing Policy, Incarceration, Drug Policy, Collateral Consequences