The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In 2015, approximately 2.2 million people were in adult correctional jails and prisons around the United States. Many thousands of people, particularly people of color, are cycled in and out of state jails or prisons every day. Extreme sentencing laws and practices are keeping people in prisons for far longer than ever before. The result is that more people are spending more of their lives in prison than at any point in U.S. history.

How did we get here? Decades of “tough on crime” policies have left this country with criminal justice systems riddled with mandatory minimum sentences, “three strikes”-style enhancements, and restrictions on release that keep people in prison for decades, if not the rest of their lives. 

What sort of punishment does selling $10 worth of marijuana warrant? Taking a wallet from a hotel room? In some cases, even crimes like these have resulted in sentences of life without parole. More than 200,000 people are now serving a life sentence or other extreme sentences. Thousands of young people are sentenced to life  in prison with little or no chance of ever being released.

These sentences are not effective deterrents and they destroy a person’s chance at rehabilitation, reunification with family, and reintegration into society. With convictions disproportionately affecting poor people and people of color, these sentences are also exacerbating extreme racial disparities in the criminal justice system and tearing vulnerable communities apart.

The ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice is working to change the unjust sentencing laws and policies that define this system. In 2016, Smart Justice and the ACLU of Oklahoma ran a successful campaign in Oklahoma to pass ballot initiative SQ780, which reclassified drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor and raising the amount of money for a theft felony to be charged from $500 to $1,000. And in 2017, Smart Justice, alongside the ACLU of Louisiana and partners across the political spectrum, campaigned to support the historic Justice Reinvestment Package in Louisiana.  The reforms in that package included lowering and eliminating some mandatory minimum sentences, raising the weight and monetary thresholds on drug and property offenses, and reducing sentencing enhancements for repeat offenders in a state that has the highest incarceration rate in the country.

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