No other country imprisons a higher percentage of its population than the United States. Not Russia, not China, not Iran. Here are some more startling facts about incarceration in America:
- Over 2.2 million Americans are behind bars - nearly one in every hundred.
- America has one twentieth of the world's population but keeps a quarter of its prisoners.
- 51 percent of inmates are inside for nothing more serious than a drug offense, with no violence involved.
- The prison population has quadrupled since 1980 - see the graph below.
Mandatory minimum sentences for drug violations have led to extraordinarily harsh sentences. 46-year-old John Horner is serving a 25-year sentence for selling his prescription painkillers to a man who said he couldn't afford to pay for his own prescriptions. The man turned out to be a police informant. Medical marijuana growers are frequently sentenced to 5 and 10 year terms.
It's these extraordinary numbers that Eric Holder hoped to address when he announced that the DOJ should try to avoid charging non-violent drug offenders with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences. But that might not be enough to keep many out of jail - it may take action by Congress (or an act of God) to reform sentencing policy.