The number of people locked up in the U.S. has more than quadrupled since 1980.

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JS 360°

Criminal Justice

Second Chances

The United States locks people up at a higher rate than any other country, thanks to its tough-on-crime laws. Now Congress is easing some of those policies that have put so many Americans behind bars. That’s bringing hope to many prisoners and their families that they may be able to restart their lives soon. 

As You Read, Think About: How should nonviolent crimes be handled by the justice system?

Last May, Kennadi Williams celebrated her 16th birthday at Topgolf, a driving range near her home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Her mother, Danielle, her 13-year-old brother, Kendall, and all her friends were there. But as Kennadi hit golf balls, she couldn’t help but think about the one person who was missing: her father.

“I wish he could have been there,” says Kennadi, a junior in high school. “He would have enjoyed it.”

Kennadi’s father, Keith Williams, hasn’t been able to come to one of her birthday parties since she was 3 years old. He hasn’t been able to attend her high school cheerleading competitions, drop her off at school, or watch Kendall play the saxophone in his school band. That’s because in 2006, Kennadi and Kendall’s father was sentenced to 22-and-a-half years in prison for being involved in a drug-dealing operation and possessing an illegal firearm.

Kennadi Williams celebrated her 16th birthday last May at Topgolf. That is a driving range near her home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Her mother, Danielle, was there. So were her 13-year-old brother, Kendall, and all her friends. But as Kennadi hit golf balls, she could not help but think about the one person who was missing: her father.

“I wish he could have been there,” says Kennadi, a junior in high school. “He would have enjoyed it.”

Kennadi’s father, Keith Williams, has not been able to come to one of her birthday parties since she was 3 years old. He has not been able to attend her high school cheerleading competitions or drop her off at school. He cannot watch Kendall play the saxophone in his school band. That is because in 2006, Kennadi and Kendall’s father was sentenced to 22-and-a-half years in prison. He had been involved in a drug-dealing operation and had an illegal firearm.

Kennadi and Kendall are far from the only teens who’ve been affected by the struggles of having a loved one in prison long-term. Today, an estimated 2.7 million kids in the United States have a parent who is behind bars. A large number of those parents, like Keith Williams, received long prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

But now a new law is providing a second chance for many people in prison—and giving hope to their families. In December, President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act. The federal law makes changes to tough-on-crime policies that dramatically increased the prison population over the past 30 years and created what many say is a costly and unfair criminal justice system.

Among other things, the First Step Act shortens some of the mandatory prison sentences given to people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes in the past three decades. It also creates new programs aimed at improving prison conditions and makes it easier for prisoners to earn early release for good behavior.

“This will keep our communities safer and provide hope and a second chance to those who earn it,” Trump tweeted. “In addition to everything else, billions of dollars will be saved.”

Kennadi and Kendall are far from the only teens who have been affected by the struggles of having a loved one in prison long-term. Today, an estimated 2.7 million kids in the United States have a parent who is behind bars. Like Keith Williams, a large number of those parents were given long prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

But now a new law is providing a second chance for many people in prison. It also gives hope to their families. In December, President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act. The federal law makes changes to tough-on-crime policies that greatly increased the prison population over the past 30 years. They also created what many people say is a costly and unfair criminal justice system.

The First Step Act shortens some of the mandatory prison sentences given to people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes in the past three decades. It also creates new programs aimed at improving prison conditions and makes it easier for prisoners to earn early release for good behavior.

“This will keep our communities safer and provide hope and a second chance to those who earn it,” Trump tweeted. “In addition to everything else, billions of dollars will be saved.”

Courtesy of FAMM

The siblings speak out in support of the First Step Act at the U.S. Capitol in July.

The “War on Drugs”

The U.S. has the highest prison population rate in the world. Although the country accounts for just 5 percent of the world’s population, it is home to 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. 

In 2016, nearly 2.2 million people were behind bars in the U.S.—about 1 out of every 100 adults. For comparison, in 1980, only about 500,000 people were in jails and prisons—roughly 1 out of every 330 adults (see graphs, below). This surge in the prison population is known as mass incarceration.

Many experts say the rise in the prison population has a lot to do with the tough-on-crime laws that U.S. officials put in place in the 1980s and 1990s to crack down on drugs (see Key Moments, below).

The U.S. has the highest prison population rate in the world. The country accounts for just 5 percent of the world’s population but is home to 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

In 2016, nearly 2.2 million people were behind bars in the U.S. That is about 1 out of every 100 adults. For comparison, in 1980, only about 500,000 people were in jails and prisons. That is roughly 1 out of every 330 adults (see graphs, below). This surge in the prison population is known as mass incarceration.

Many experts say the rise in the prison population has a lot to do with the tough-on-crime laws U.S. officials put in place in the 1980s and 1990s. That was done to crack down on drugs (see Key Moments, below).

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared a “war on drugs.” A few years later, as the use of a drug called crack cocaine turned into an epidemic, he signed laws that required lengthy prison terms for certain crimes—mostly drug offenses. Such sentences are known as mandatory minimums.

Harsh sentencing increased in the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton signed a crime bill that created the federal “three strikes and you’re out” law. This law automatically gave mandatory life sentences to some three-time offenders.

Some states began adopting “three strikes” laws as well. At times, the laws required sentences that many people said were unfair—even outrageous. For example, in 1995, a California man with five prior convictions was sentenced to 25 years in prison for stealing a slice of pizza.

Explains Jesselyn McCurdy of the American Civil Liberties Union: “Too many people [were] being incarcerated for no good reason.”

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared a “war on drugs.” A few years later, the use of a drug called crack cocaine turned into an epidemic. The president then signed laws that required long prison terms for certain crimes, mostly drug offenses. Such sentences are known as mandatory minimums.

Harsh sentencing increased in the 1990s. That was when President Bill Clinton signed a crime bill that created the federal “three strikes and you’re out” law. That law automatically gave mandatory life sentences to some three-time offenders.

Some states began to adopt “three strikes” laws as well. At times, the laws required sentences that many people said were unfair—even outrageous. For example, in 1995, a California man with five prior convictions was sentenced to 25 years in prison for stealing a slice of pizza.

Explains Jesselyn McCurdy of the American Civil Liberties Union: “Too many people were being incarcerated for no good reason.”

You Might Need to Know . . . 

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

A man caught with illegal drugs is arrested in Aspen, Colorado.

THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM is a series of government agencies and institutions established to identify criminals and punish them. In the U.S., the criminal justice system consists of the police, courts and lawyers, and prisons.

MASS INCARCERATION refers to the surge in the number of people being sent to prison starting in the 1980s. It was fueled by policies and laws that led to more arrests, higher conviction rates, and longer prison sentences. Those changes have particularly affected people of color, who are locked up at much higher rates than whites.

THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM is a series of government agencies and institutions established to identify criminals and punish them. In the U.S., the criminal justice system consists of the police, courts and lawyers, and prisons.

MASS INCARCERATION refers to the surge in the number of people being sent to prison starting in the 1980s. It was fueled by policies and laws that led to more arrests, higher conviction rates, and longer prison sentences. Those changes have particularly affected people of color, who are locked up at much higher rates than whites.

Unequal System?

The laws were meant to discourage potential criminals. But many people say the policies unfairly affected minorities and contributed to current racial disparities in U.S. prisons. 

Today, prisoners are typically poorly educated minority men under age 40. African Americans, for example, are imprisoned at more than five times the rate of white Americans. Part of that imbalance is due to racial bias. Research has found that blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to be arrested, convicted, and given longer sentences for similar offenses.

The laws were meant to discourage potential criminals. But many people say the policies unfairly affected minorities and contributed to current racial disparities in U.S. prisons.

Today, prisoners are typically poorly educated minority men under age 40. African Americans are imprisoned at more than five times the rate of white Americans. Part of that imbalance is due to racial bias. Research has found that blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to be arrested and convicted. Also, they are often given longer sentences for similar offenses.

A Parent in Prison

It costs taxpayers about $80 billion a year to keep so many people behind bars. In fact, nearly one-third of the Justice Department budget is spent on running federal prisons.

But the burden of these tough-on-crime laws has been felt most intensely by prisoners and their families. For Kennadi, the hardest part has been forming a relationship with someone who’s been locked up for most of her life. Kendall wasn’t even born yet when their father was incarcerated, so he has gotten to know him only inside prison walls.

It costs taxpayers about $80 billion a year to keep so many people behind bars. Nearly one-third of the Justice Department budget is spent on running federal prisons.

But the burden of these tough-on-crime laws has been felt most intensely by prisoners and their families. The hardest part for Kennadi has been forming a relationship with someone who has been locked up for most of her life. Kendall was not even born yet when their father was incarcerated. He has gotten to know him only inside prison walls.

2.2 million

Number of people behind bars in the United States 

SOURCE: Bureau of Justice Statistics

Though they tried to visit him twice a year, that wasn’t always possible. Keith Williams was relocated seven times—once about 1,000 miles away in New Jersey. For nearly two years while he was there, Kennadi and Kendall didn’t see him, and they had to rely on writing letters and talking on the phone to stay in touch. 

Having an incarcerated parent also affected some of Kennadi’s and Kendall’s friendships.

“People assume that since you have a family member that is incarcerated, you may turn out like them, so they shouldn’t really waste their time with you,” Kendall says.

But with their mother’s support, the siblings have always tried to stay positive. “I had to tell myself that he will be home soon,” Kendall says, “and when he’s home we will bond and grow our relationship.”

They tried to visit him twice a year. But that was not always possible. Keith Williams was relocated seven times, once about 1,000 miles away in New Jersey. Kennadi and Kendall did not see him for nearly two years while he was there. They had to rely on writing letters and talking on the phone to stay in touch.

Having an incarcerated parent also affected some of Kennadi’s and Kendall’s friendships.

“People assume that since you have a family member that is incarcerated, you may turn out like them, so they shouldn’t really waste their time with you,” Kendall says.

But with their mother’s support, the siblings have always tried to stay positive. “I had to tell myself that he will be home soon,” Kendall says, “and when he’s home we will bond and grow our relationship.”

Adam Zyglis/PoliticalCartoons.com

This is one cartoonist’s take on mass incarceration in the United States. Why might he have drawn the prison bars this way?

Pushing for Change

With more stories like the Williamses’ coming to light, public support for easing U.S. incarceration laws has been growing. Everyone from Jay-Z and Kim Kardashian to the country’s largest police organization has been calling for sentencing reform in recent years.

Last summer, the Williamses decided to join the efforts. Kennadi, Kendall, and their mother—along with relatives of other incarcerated people—traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby lawmakers to pass the First Step Act.

With more stories like the Williamses’ coming to light, public support for easing U.S. incarceration laws has been growing. Everyone from Jay-Z and Kim Kardashian to the country’s largest police organization has been calling for sentencing reform in recent years.

Last summer, the Williamses decided to join the efforts. Kennadi, Kendall, and their mother traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby lawmakers to pass the First Step Act. Relatives of other incarcerated people also joined.

1 in 5

Number of incarcerated people who are locked up for a drug offense

SOURCE: Prison Policy Initiative

The act received widespread support from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress—as well as from President Trump. In addition to shortening some sentences, the new law bans solitary confinement for juveniles and requires that inmates be imprisoned within a 500-mile drive of their families.

Still, some critics say the new law doesn’t go far enough. They point out that it doesn’t affect state prisons, where the majority of the country’s offenders are incarcerated. However, many people believe the act could spur more states to change their laws and agree that the federal law is—as its name suggests—a solid first step.

The act received widespread support from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. President Trump also supported the act. In addition to shortening some sentences, the new law bans solitary confinement for juveniles. It also requires that inmates be imprisoned within a 500-mile drive of their families.

Still, some critics say the new law does not go far enough. They point out that it does not affect state prisons. That is where the majority of the country’s offenders are incarcerated. However, many people believe the act could spur more states to change their laws. They agree that the federal law is—as its name suggests—a solid first step.

Visual Thinking: Life Behind Bars

Starting Over

For Kendall, helping to get the First Step Act signed into law was incredibly important. “It’s crazy to see something that I worked to help get passed actually happen,” he says.

In February, Kendall and his sister got even more good news: Their father had been released to a halfway house early, thanks to a 2014 law that reduced sentences for some drug offenders.

Although they know they’ll have adjustments to make as a family, Kennadi is excited that her father will be able to attend her high school graduation next year. Kendall, meanwhile, is looking forward to just being able to sit together and watch TV.

While the Williamses hope the First Step Act will help ease burdens on other people whose relatives are locked up, they understand that those who commit crimes have to accept the consequences for their actions. They simply want the punishments to be fair.

“In no way are we saying our loved ones shouldn’t be incarcerated,” says Danielle Williams, Kennadi and Kendall’s mother. “We’re just asking that they have just sentencing, just treatment.” 

For Kendall, helping to get the First Step Act signed into law was incredibly important. “It’s crazy to see something that I worked to help get passed actually happen,” he says.

In February, Kendall and his sister got even more good news: Their father had been released to a halfway house early. That was thanks to a 2014 law that reduced sentences for some drug offenders.

They know they will have adjustments to make as a family. But Kennadi is excited that her father will be able to attend her high school graduation next year. Kendall is looking forward to just being able to sit together and watch TV.

The Williamses hope the First Step Act will help ease burdens on other people whose relatives are locked up. But they also understand that people who commit crimes have to accept the consequences for their actions. They simply want the punishments to be fair.

“In no way are we saying our loved ones shouldn’t be incarcerated,” says Danielle Williams, Kennadi and Kendall’s mother. “We’re just asking that they have just sentencing, just treatment.”

Write About It! What are some of the challenges faced by kids who have an incarcerated parent? How might the First Step Act help reduce those challenges? Use details from the article and additional research to write a few paragraphs explaining your point of view. 

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