As part of a growing tough-on-crime attitude and a full-fledged War on Drugs in the 1980s, legislators at the state and federal levels passed a myriad of punitive laws. In the following decades, the incarcerated population exploded, reaching over two million by the 21st century and leaving the United States with the largest imprisoned population and a system riddled with racial disparities.
Over-criminalization and mass incarceration have overwhelmingly affected people of color. African-American men are disproportionately likely to be arrested, tried, and incarcerated for drug crimes, despite the fact that they are no more likely to use or sell illicit drugs than white men. Similarly, there are pervasive disparities in sentencing for the death penalty; 34 percent of executed defendants and 42 percent of death row prisoners are African-American.
There has also been a profound increase in the incarceration of women and girls over the past few decades. Though there are more men in prison than women, female imprisonment has grown twice as fast as male imprisonment since 1980. Racial and ethnic disparities persist across gender lines; the imprisonment rate for African American women is two times as high and the rate for Hispanic women is 1.3 times as high as the rate for white women. The disparity is even more pronounced for girls; Native girls are more than 4 times as likely, African American girls are 3.5 times as likely, and Latina girls 38 percent as likely than white girls to be incarcerated.
In recent years, growing recognition of the massive human and economic costs of mass incarceration has caused a bipartisan coalition to coalesce around sentencing reform. For decades, the Union for Reform Judaism has opposed mandatory minimums for first-time drug offenders, opposed the death penalty, and called for rehabilitative alternatives to incarceration.
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