When he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and other charges in 2005, Stephen Slevin had no way of knowing that an opinion about his mental state would put him on a path to spend more than 22 months of solitary confinement in a New Mexico county jail, despite never having his day in court. This week, he reached a $15.5 million settlement with Dona Ana County.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon. Jeffrey Beard has watched America's prisons grow larger and larger every year adding prisoner after prisoner. He began working in the Pennsylvania Corrections system in the early 1970s when there were about 8,000 prisoners. He was secretary of corrections by the time he left in 2010 and by that time Pennsylvania had more than 50,000 people in its prisons.
The United States puts more people behind bars than any other country, five times as many per capita compared with Britain or Spain.
It wasn't always like this. Half a century ago, relatively few people were locked up, and those inmates generally served short sentences. But 40 years ago, New York passed strict sentencing guidelines known as the "Rockefeller drug laws" — after their champion, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller — that put even low-level criminals behind bars for decades.
Originally published on Fri February 15, 2013 11:11 am
There are roughly half a million people behind bars for nonviolent drug crimes in America. But no one really knows how many people have been sentenced to long prison bids since the laws known as Rockefeller drug laws first passed 40 years ago.
What's clear is that tough sentencing laws, even for low-level drug dealers and addicts, shaped a generation of young men, especially black and Hispanic men.