Lynn Adelman


Beginning in the 1970s, the United States embarked on a shift in its penal policies, tripling the percentage of convicted felons sentenced to confinement and doubling the length of their sentences. This shift included a dramatic increase in the prosecution and incarceration of drug offenders. As a result of its move toward long prison sentences, the United States now incarcerates so many people that it has become an outlier; this is not just among developed democracies, but among all nations, including highly punitive states such as Russia and South Africa, and also in comparison to the United States' own long-standing practices. The present rate of incarceration in the United States is currently "almost five times higher than the historical norm prevailing throughout most of the twentieth century." In sum, the United States has a serious over-punishment problem. Our country's imprisonment rate has acquired the name, "mass incarceration," meant to provoke shame about the fact that the world's wealthiest democracy imprisons so many people, even at a time when crime rates have diminished and crime is "not one of the nation's pressing social problems." Most criminal justice scholars agree that our current prison population is too large. They also agree that the impact of imprisonment on the crime rate is modest and that the speed at which people are released from prison bears little relation to the likelihood that they will remain crime free. Many prisoners can serve shorter sentences without triggering an increase in crime. As a result, we can reduce sentence lengths substantially without adversely affecting public safety.