This is a simple truth: the United States is the only country in the first world that imposes life sentences to teenagers for small-time, non-violent drug offenses. In fact, the American legal system does so with alarming regularity, spending $40 billion a year to lock up hundreds of thousands of low-level dealers. The practice began when Ronald Reagan declared a "War on Drugs" in 1986, and has spread steadily since then. The following year, Congress enacted its federal mandatory sentencing guidelines, which automatically buried tens of thousands of low-level, non-violent drug offenders in the belly of the beast for decades—even for multiple life terms.
Just ask Clarence Aaron, inmate number 05070-003. At the age of 24, Aaron was sentenced to three life terms for his role in a cocaine deal. That's effectively three times the sentence imposed upon Faisal Shahzad, who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square in 2010. Aaron was a student and football player at Southern University in Baton Rouge. He'd never been arrested. In 1992, he made the mistake of being present for the sale of nine kilograms of cocaine and the conversion of one kilo of coke to crack. Aaron would have earned $1,500 for introducing the buyer and seller. He never actually touched the drugs.