More than 2.2 million Americans are imprisoned, most serving excessively long sentences that advance no public safety purpose and come at great expense to taxpayers. The politics of fear and anger in the 1980s and 1990s led to so-called “tough on crime” sentencing policies that are now being recognized as harsh, counter-productive, discriminatory, and fiscally irresponsible.
Punishment in America is grossly distorted by retention of the death penalty—a legacy of lynching that remains inextricably infected with racial bias and error and has proven to be extraordinarily costly and ineffective at reducing crime.
Second only to death by execution in severity is life imprisonment without parole. Habitual offender laws with the popular moniker “Three Strikes, You’re Out” that permit or, in some cases, require repeat offenders to be sentenced to die in prison—even for nonviolent offenses—proliferated in the 1990s. Racially-charged fears of juvenile “super predators” fueled new laws that exposed children to life-without-parole sentences, and so-called “Truth-in-Sentencing” laws abolished parole in the federal system and in many states. As a result, the number of people serving life and life-without-parole sentences in the United States has quadrupled since 1984, and it continues to grow. One in seven incarcerated people is serving a life sentence, and a quarter of those have no chance for parole. Life-without-parole sentences continue to rise sharply, with a nearly 60 percent increase from 2003 to 2016.
The “war on drugs” led to mandatory minimum sentences that have contributed to massive overcrowding in federal and state prisons. Federal sentencing laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s have required more drug offenders to go to prison and to stay there much longer: the average prison sentence for federal drug offenders in the United States has increased by 36 percent since 1980. Federal sentencing laws designed with serious traffickers in mind have resulted in lengthy imprisonment of first-time offenders and offenders who played relatively minor roles. More than 95,000 federal prisoners are serving time for drug-related offenses today–up from fewer than 5000 in 1980. And the average time federal drug offenders served in prison increased 153 percent from 1988 to 2012, from 23.2 to 58.6 months; the time served by property and violent offenders increased 39 and 44 percent, respectively, in this period.
EJI challenges excessive sentences and advocates for sentencing reform, including abolishing the death penalty, restricting the use of life-without-parole sentences, abolishing Truth-in-Sentencing and Three Strikes laws, encouraging parole boards to release people, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and habitual offender statutes, and allowing the elderly prison population to return home. In Alabama, EJI won relief for dozens of nonviolent offenders who were sentenced to die in prison under the state’s Habitual Felony Offender Act, which mandates life-without-parole for a fourth felony even if it is a nonviolent crime like stealing a bicycle, writing a bad check, or drug possession. EJI is challenging Alabama’s stringent drug laws, which feature low quantity thresholds and mandatory minimum sentences for all trafficking offenses, and expose even first-time offenders to extraordinarily harsh prison sentences.