by the Honorable Lynn Adelman, district judge in the United States District Court, Eastern District of Wisconsin.
*This piece was originally posted in the fall issue of Litigation
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 twentieth century. The very phrase—“mass incarceration”—is meant to provoke shame that the world’s wealthiest democracy imprisons so many people, though crime rates have fallen.