September 01, 2017

From the Bench: How Congress, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and Federal Judges Contribute to Mass Incarceration

Hon. Lynn Adelman

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The United States today has a serious over-punishment problem. Beginning in the 1960s and ’70s, the country embarked on a shift in penal policies, tripling the percentage of convicted felons sentenced to prison and doubling the length of their sentences. As a result, America has become an outlier, not just among democracies but among all nations—including such highly punitive states as Russia and South Africa. The United States’ current incarceration rate is five times higher than the rate throughout most of the 20th century. The very phrase—“mass incarceration”—is meant to provoke shame at the fact that the world’s wealthiest democracy imprisons so many people, though crime rates have fallen.

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