mandatory minimums

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Louisiana’s incarceration rate is the highest in the world, and costs the state $600-million a year. So how do we change that?

“Nobody’s trying to get murderers and rapists and armed robbers out of jail,” Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson advises. “We’re talking about alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenders.”

Yet Louisiana is one of only two states that allows criminal convictions by less than a unanimous jury. (The other is Oregon.)

President Obama toured a federal prison in Oklahoma on Thursday and said the nation needs to reconsider policies that contribute to a huge spike in the number of people behind bars.

In an unprecedented visit by a sitting president, Obama met with half a dozen inmates at the El Reno prison, outside Oklahoma City. The trip was part of a weeklong push by the White House to focus attention on the president's call for criminal justice reform.

When she went to prison on drug charges, Stephanie George was 26 years old, a mother to three young kids.

Over 17 years behind bars, her grandparents died. Her father died. But the worst came just months before her release.

"I lost my baby son," George says, referring to Will, shot dead on a Pensacola, Fla., street.

"I feel bad because I'm not coming home to all of them, you know," sobs George, now 44. "He was 4 when I left, but I miss him."

It seems long ago now, but in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, murders and robberies exploded as cocaine and other illegal drugs ravaged American cities.

Then came June 19, 1986, when the overdose of a college athlete sent the nation into shock just days after the NBA draft. Basketball star Len Bias could have been anybody's brother or son.

Congress swiftly responded by passing tough mandatory sentences for drug crimes. Those sentences, still in place, pack federal prisons to this day. More than half of the 219,000 federal prisoners are serving time for drug offenses.

Mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug dealers were once viewed as powerful levers in the nation's war against drugs, a way to target traffickers, and punish kingpins and masterminds.

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