“Almost 30 years of harsh sentencing laws have left the US with over 2.2 million men and women behind bars, most for nonviolent crimes,” the 36-page report concludes, pointing to the more than 53 percent of state prison inmates with sentences of at least a year who are serving time for non-violent offenses.
“Fair and prudent punishment is not only a core human rights principle, but a core principle of American justice that has been neglected for far too long,” Jamie Fellner, co-author of the report and senior adviser to the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch, said in a press release Tuesday. “There is growing national recognition that disproportionately harsh laws are not needed to protect public safety and to hold offenders accountable for their crimes. To the contrary, community well-being is best served by fair laws and just sentences.”
The new report also sheds light on the disproportionately aggressive enforcement of recreational drug laws against minority communities in the U.S., which maintains the world’s highest documented rate of incarceration.
“Although whites and blacks use and sell drugs at comparable rates, blacks are arrested and incarcerated on drug charges that greatly exceed their proportion of the general population and among drug offenders (both users and sellers),” the report concludes. “African Americans are arrested for drug offenses, including possession, at three times the rate of white men.”
The report also notes that in 2011, more than 95,000 inmates in adult prisons across the country were younger than 18.
“The ‘land of the free’ has become a country of prisons,” Fellner said. “How can a country committed to liberty send minor dealers to die in prison for selling small amounts of illegal drugs to adults?”