Issues and Facts
  • How Did We Become the World’s Largest Jailer?

    Posted on   2/14/2013  2:19 PM

    Just how did the United States get the distinction of putting more people behind bars than any other country -- five times as many per capita compared with Britain or Spain?

    Part of the reason is because of a decision make 40 years ago in New York, according to a National Public Radio story

    The state passed strict sentencing guidelines known as the "Rockefeller drug laws" — after their champion, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller — that put even low-level criminals in prison for decades. In the years to come, many other states passed similar tough-on-crime laws that became the new normal across the nation.

    It all started in the 1970s when New York City was in the grips of a heroin epidemic and junkies were everywhere. So, at the time, Rockefeller “called for something unheard of: mandatory prison sentences of 15 years to life for drug dealers and addicts — even those caught with small amounts of marijuana, cocaine or heroin,” NPR reported.

    According to NPR: “The Rockefeller drug laws sailed through New York's Legislature. And pretty quickly this idea of getting tough, even on petty criminals, went viral, spreading across the U.S. Other states started adopting mandatory minimum and three-strikes laws — and so did the federal government.”

    “Due in part to Rockefeller-style laws, the nation's prison population exploded from 330,000 in 1973 to a peak of 2.3 million. That meant building hundreds of new state and federal prisons. By 2010, more than 490,000 people were working as prison guards.”

    Today, the repercussions of those early, anti-crime decisions are still being felt.

    More than two million children have incarcerated parents. That means, they are growing up without the support and love of those parents. And statistically, many of these children will become incarcerated themselves later in life -- until they are guided away from bad decisions that they will regret for the rest of their lives.

    So, did our nation do the right thing in creating Rockefeller laws? Would you have supported creating them today?

    Share your thoughts below.

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