Last Sunday, on the HBO late night talk show Last Week Tonight, comedian John Oliver took on our criminal justice system. He began by showing a clip from Sesame Street, where Muppets were explaining incarceration to children. Like many kids, I grew up watching Sesame Street - most of my memories just involve puppets singing songs about the importance of sharing, counting to 10 in faux accents, or, in the case of Cookie Monster, hunting for cookies. For me, this was a reminder of how much things have changed, even in just my lifetime.  Today, nearly 2 million children are growing up with a parent in prison or jail and nearly 1 in every 100 Americans is currently behind bars.

While many factors have played a role in the unprecedented growth of our criminal justice system, one huge contributor has been the War on Drugs.  Prior to 1988, the maximum penalty any person could get for possession of any drug was one year in prison. Flash forward 30 years: slews of mandatory minimum sentences led to the incarceration of record number of people for huge amounts of time, often for low-level, non-violent crimes. Even in Maine, mere possession of some drugs is a Class C crime, a felony carrying a penalty of up to five years in prison.

Worse yet, the drug war has been waged along color lines. While studies have consistently shown similar use rates, black people are imprisoned for drug offenses at nearly ten times the rate of white people. In Maine, while black people make up just 1% of our population they account for 7% of our prison population.

“Because half the people in federal prison are there are drug charges and it accounts for a quarter of admissions to state prisons and of course it is tricky to know how to feel about all this because on the one hand the War on Drugs has completely solved our nations drug problem, so that’s good. But on the other hand our drug laws do seem to be a little draconian and a lot racist.” - John Oliver, Last Week Tonight

However, with growing recognition of the failure of the War on Drugs and the cost of incarceration to families, communities and states, there has been some movement towards reform. Last Friday, we got news that the U.S Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to give nearly a quarter of all federal prisoners the chance to reduce their sentences by an average of more than two years. Back in April, the Commission had approved a reduction of the average sentence for people convicted of drug trafficking; however, this amendment allows for these new sentencing guidelines to be applied retroactively, potentially affecting an estimated 46,000 prisoners. 

Following Friday's announcement, ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Jesselyn McCurdy, who testified before the Commission last month in favor of the amendment, said: 

“As we continue to march toward fairness in our country’s failed, racially biased sentencing policies, we can’t leave behind those who had the bad luck to receive their sentences before the policies were changed. Making these new guidelines retroactive will offer relief to thousands of people who received harsh sentences under the old sentencing guidelines. The Sentencing Commission absolutely did the right thing today by putting the power to decide retroactively in judges' hands.”

To read the ACLU’s full statement on the amendment please click here.