RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The United States puts more people in prison than any other country - five times as many per capita, compared with Britain or Spain.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It wasn't always like this. Half a century ago, the U.S. locked up relatively few people, and those inmates generally served short sentences. Then 40 years ago, New York state passed strict sentencing guidelines known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws, that put even low-level criminals behind bars for decades.

MONTAGNE: The tough-on-crime policies became the new normal across the country, changing how we think about crime and punishment. But with many, these days, questioning both the effectiveness and the cost of sentencing laws, North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann has this look back at how we got here.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: I'm driving through a little town in northern New York called Ray Brook. On this snowy, tree-lined road, there's an old hospital. There's also a complex that housed the athletes who competed in the Winter Olympics in nearby Lake Placid. These days, both sets of buildings are used as prisons - one a state prison, the other a federal correctional facility.

They're part of a massive infrastructure that sprang up in America over the last 40 years, a prison network that now houses more than 2 million people. The thing that sparked the prison boom was a new set of ideas about how we can make communities and neighborhoods safer.

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THE REV. OBERIA DEMPSEY: I was assaulted by members of a dope mob - by blood-thirsty, money-hungry, death-dealing criminals.

MANN: In the 1970s, Reverend Oberia Dempsey led a church in Harlem. New York City was battling a heroin epidemic - junkies on street corners; the homicide rate was four times as high as it is today. New York's Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller had been a champion of drug rehabilitation, job training and housing. He saw drugs as a social problem, not a criminal one.

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GOV. NELSON ROCKEFELLER: I was trying to get the addict off the street, into treatment. Now, this was a beautiful concept.

MANN: But the political mood was hardening. President Richard Nixon declared a national war on drugs, and movies like "The French Connection" and "Panic in Needle Park" helped spread the sense that America's cities were unraveling.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: It is here, in the neighborhood of Needle Park, that drug addicts live and steal and hustle, and somehow manage to exist from one day to the next.

MANN: Late in 1972, one of Nelson Rockefeller's closest aides, Joseph Persico, was in a meeting with the governor. He says Rockefeller suddenly did a dramatic about-face.

JOSEPH PERSICO: Finally, he turned and said, for drug-pushing, life sentence - no parole, no probation.

MANN: That was the moment, right there, when one of the seeds of our modern prison system was planted. Persico says the governor decided that more progressive approaches to drug addiction had simply failed. He heard about this new, zero-tolerance approach to crime while studying Japan's war on drugs.

PERSICO: And we all looked a little bit shocked. And one of the staff said, sounds a little bit severe. And he said, that's because you don't understand the problem. And then we realized that he was very serious.

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ROCKEFELLER: This is an unusual press conference.

MANN: Rockefeller launched his campaign to toughen New York's laws, at a press conference in January of 1973 - almost exactly 40 years ago. He called for something unheard of: mandatory prison sentences of 15 years to life for drug dealers and addicts, even those caught with small amounts of marijuana, cocaine or heroin.

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ROCKEFELLER: I have one goal, one objective. And that is to stop the pushing of drugs, and to protect the innocent victim.

MANN: Right from the start, Rockefeller's policy drew sharp criticism from drug-treatment experts and some politicians, who called the sentences draconian. But the truth is, no one really understood what the laws would mean - how many millions of people they would touch. Albert Rosenblatt was a prosecutor at the time, and wrote the first book detailing how district attorneys would implement the new rules.

ALBERT ROSENBLATT: I don't remember thinking or believing - nor did my colleague D.A.s at the time - that this is going to somehow revolutionize and change everything.

MANN: The Rockefeller drug laws sailed through New York's legislature. And pretty quickly, this idea of getting tough - even on petty criminals - went viral, spreading across the U.S. Other states started adopting mandatory minimum and three strikes laws. So did the federal government. But Rosenblatt says prosecutors in New York realized that the laws were doing unexpected and troubling things. White people were using a lot of drugs in the 1970s, and committing a lot of crimes. Yet the people being arrested and sent to prison under the Rockefeller laws came almost entirely from poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

ROSENBLATT: We were aware of it. I mean, it's hard not to be aware of it when you see a courtroom - and when you see a cadre of defendants, many or most of whom were people of color.

MANN: Due in part to Rockefeller-style laws, the nation's prison population exploded from 330,000 in 1973, to a peak of 2.3 million. That meant building hundreds of new state and federal prisons. And by 2010, more than 490,000 people were working as prison guards. Journalist and historian Scott Christianson has written for decades about drug crime and America's prison system. He says we're just coming to terms with the impact of these policies on poor neighborhoods, on race relations, and on taxpayers.

SCOTT CHRISTIANSON: I think that this state and our society really has to do some hard thinking and to reflect on the impact of this long-term war on drugs - what it has meant for our society, what it has cost.

MANN: Cost is one thing driving this re-examination. Studies put the price tag of America's vast prison system at between 63 and $75 billion a year. New York's sentencing rules were partially reformed in 2009, contributing to the closure of seven state prisons so far. Politicians in other cash-strapped states, like California, have also moved to slash the number of people behind bars. But in most of the country, we still live in the house that Rockefeller built. Half a million Americans are serving long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Those inmates make up 48 percent of the inmate population in federal prisons.

Joseph Persico, the aide who helped push through Rockefeller's drug laws, says new scrutiny for the policy is overdue.

PERSICO: I concluded very early that this was a failure. I mean, it's filling up the prisons with first-time offenders. This was obviously unjust - and not just unjust, but unwise. It was ineffective.

MANN: This debate is far from over. Supporters of mandatory minimums say the policy has helped reduce crime in some cities, including New York. And they point to modest declines in the use of some drugs, particularly cocaine. Persico says Nelson Rockefeller himself never expressed any second thoughts or reservations about the policy that carries his name.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in New York.

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MONTAGNE: And you can read more on the debate over America's war on drugs, at npr.org. Plus, tune in later today during ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, when Brian Mann looks at the impact of the Rockefeller drug laws on one man and his family.

GEORGE PRENDES: You try not to be bitter. I mean, I was 23 years old when I got arrested. I got out of prison when I was 37. That was a big chunk of my life, and there's a lot of things that I could've done and didn't do.

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