Monday , October 2 2023
A male prisoner in an orange jump suit is pictured through a green prison door as he sits alone in a cell.
Since 1986, The Sentencing Project has worked to address the issues of ineffectiveness and racial bias in sentencing policy.

Sentencing Project Fights an Uphill Battle

Since 1986, The Sentencing Project has worked to address ineffectiveness and racial bias in sentencing policy. I wonder if they feel like giving up.

Let me explain.

America’s incarceration rate is currently 670 per 100,000 people. Compare those numbers with the next three highest offenders on the list: Rwanda, 434 per 100,000; Russia, 413 per 100,000; and Brazil, 325 per 100,000. Further down the list is China, which, with more than 1.38 billion people, sees just 118 per 100,000, while America’s entire population is 327,829,440.

Between 1925 and 1978, America’s prison population was fairly level. When The Sentencing Project launched in 1986, federal prisons had a population of 522,084. In 2016 that number was 1,458,173. Between 1986 and 1988 alone, the federal prison population jumped by 80,928 felons.

The Sentencing Project points out a correlation: the War on Drugs started in 1982. Before it, drug offenders in federal prisons numbered 4,700 (1980). In 2016 it was 81,900. The jump for state prisons: 19,000 drug offenders in 1980, versus 197,200 in 2016.

According to The Sentencing Project’s Criminal Justice Facts page, “Today, there are more people behind bars for a drug offense than the number of people who were in prison or jail for any crime in 1980. The number of people sentenced to prison for property and violent crimes has also increased even during periods when crime rates have declined.”

Imagine how that feels for The Sentencing Project. This altruistic organization opened to do some good in the world and promptly spent the next 30 years watching the monster it tried to slay grow to gigantic proportions year after year after year.

Clearly, it’s an uphill battle. With the U.S. having the most people in prison per capita in the world and dramatic increases in the prison population, one can hardly say The Sentencing Project is meeting its main objective.

Or is it?

The battle The Sentencing Project fights may be a hard one, but I suspect the numbers above will not deter them. A better way of looking at it is that 30 years ago, concerned citizens were perceptive enough to see that the American penal system was going to change in ways that would punish all Americans, not just offenders, and banded together to start sounding the alarm.

I think this group were visionaries, issuing a warning that fell on deaf ears, but undeterred. They kept gathering data, kept analyzing the numbers, kept researching, and kept fighting, knowing they were on the right track and one day their message would be heard.

We are hearing them loud and clear now.

Through years of research, campaigns, and advocacy, The Sentencing Project has been instrumental in pushing the truth about our justice system out into the world – and the truth is very harsh:

  • There has been a 716% increase in women’s incarceration rates since 1980.
  • There has been a 500% increase in the jail and prison population over the last 40 years.
  • 1 in 7 prisoners are locked up for life.
  • 1 in 3 black men and 1 in 6 Latino men will go to prison, compared to 1 in 17 white men.

Thirty years ago, The Sentencing Project realized that even with a relatively flat prison population between 1925 and the 1970s, something in the underlying setup of the system was very wrong. They understood that the entire system was at risk of exploitation from racism, classism, and greed. Thirty years ago, they decided to warn us and start advocating for change. Thirty years later, we look back at this humble organization and have to agree, they were right.

Today, the staff and board of The Sentencing Project include leading experts in sentencing policy, communications, research, and advocacy. It boasts a rich body of detailed publications: Juvenile Life Without Parole: An Overview, Expanding the Vote: Two Decades of Felony Disenfranchisement Reforms, Capitalization on Mass Incarceration: US Growth in Private Prisons, and many more. It is a visible and respected presence in discussions of prison reform, and it connects citizens with the policymakers who have the power to change the justice system.

The Sentencing Project set out to change America, and although the battle turned into a war, and the war has been fought uphill all the way, it never stopped fighting the good fight. The cry for change is louder than ever and with increasing pressure from all sides to bring about sweeping prison reform, one could say The Sentencing Project’s fight could, and hopefully soon will, be a victory.

Christopher Zoukis, author of Federal Prison Handbook, Prison Education Guide, and College for Convicts, is the Marketing Director of Brandon Sample PLC. He can be found online at,, and

About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the author of the Federal Prison Handbook., Prison Education Guide, and College for Convicts. He is currently a law student at the University of California, Davis School of Law, where he is a Criminal Law Association and Students Against Mass Incarceration board member, and a research editor for the Social Justice Law Review. Learn more about him at Federal Prison Consultants.

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