BARELY LEGAL | The Sentencing Reform Act of 2015

The United States of America incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation in the world. This was not always the case; in fact, this abominable statistic is a rather recent development. In approximately the last 30 years, the prison population increased five fold, from a mere 320,000 in 1980 to 1.62 million in 2009.  Many prominent scholars and journalists, such as Michelle Alexander and Radley Balko, agree that this rapid increase was the result of the infamous, and continuing, War on Drugs — a nationwide movement that has led to the over-policing of communities of color for crimes committed by other communities at the same rate (such as drug use), abuse of prosecutorial discretion and the creation of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.  More fundamentally, however, the massive increase stemmed from a movement away from a sympathetic, rehabilitative approach to enforcing criminal laws and towards a fixation on punishing offenders, especially non-violent drug offenders. The genesis of what we now call the prison-industrial complex finds its roots in the endorsement of mandatory sentencing laws.  By the height of the nation-wide crime wave in the early 1990s, most states and the federal government enacted laws mirroring the 1972 Rockefeller Drug Laws.  The Rockefeller Drug Laws, and their draconian progeny, required judges to sentence low-level drug offenders — mostly non-violent and in possession of a small amount of narcotics — to minimum sentences that often exceeded a decade. With over-policing, the War on Drugs, the criminalization of even small amounts of narcotics and long-term mandatory minimum sentencing, the federal government and various states wrote the recipe for an exploding prison population.