Half of the 212,000+ federal inmates are incarcerated for drug crimes, a legacy of 1980s laws that prosecutors use to target not only kingpins but also low-level couriers and girlfriends, NPR reports. Multiple convictions for small-time offenses under those laws mean thousands of people are locked up for decades, or even the rest of their lives. Everyone from Attorney General Eric Holder to Tea Party Republicans in Congress has argued those stiff mandatory minimum prison sentences do more harm than good for thousands of drug offenders.
Legislation to cut the tough-on-crime penalties has stalled on Capitol Hill. NPR focused on the human toll of these mandatory prison sentences, talking with judges “who expressed tearful misgivings about sending people away for the rest of their lives for crimes that involved no violence and a modest amount of drugs.” Inmates acknowledge they broke the law and accept the need for punishment. They say their decades-long incarcerations cast a shadow that lingers over their families, damage that far outweighs the wrongs they did to put them in prison.