Skip Navigation
  • Home
  • Excessive Punishment: How the Justice System Creates Mass Incarceration
Excessive Punishment - How the Justice System Creates Mass Incarceration

In Excessive Punishment: How the Justice System Creates Mass Incarceration, Brennan Center Justice Program Senior Director Lauren-Brooke Eisen unpacks why our criminal legal system is so punitive. Excessive Punishment contains 38 essays, by 45 contributors — practitioners, activists, academics, and thought leaders — who contributed their critical voices to highlighting the harms of the status quo and providing valuable insight into how we can move toward a criminal legal system that is smaller, more effective, and more humane.

All proceeds of book sales will go to the Women’s Prison Association


The United States has by far the world’s largest population of incarcerated people. More than a million Americans are imprisoned; hundreds of thousands more are held in jails. This vast system has doled out punishment — particularly to people from marginalized groups — on an unfathomable scale. At the same time, it has manifestly failed to secure public safety, instead perpetuating inequalities and recidivism. Why does the United States see punishment as the main response to social harm, and what are the alternatives?

This book brings together essays by scholars, practitioners, activists, and writers, including incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, to explore the harms of this punitive approach. The chapters address a range of issues, from policing to prosecution, and from how people are treated in prison to the consequences of a criminal conviction. Together, they consider a common theme: we cannot reduce our dependence on mass incarceration until we confront our impulse to punish in ways that are excessive, often wildly disproportionate to the harm caused.

Essays trace how a maze of local, state, and federal agencies have contributed to mass incarceration and deterred attempts at reform. They shed light on how the excesses of America’s criminal legal system are entwined with poverty, racism, and the legacy of slavery. A wide-ranging and powerful look at the failures of the status quo, Excessive Punishment also considers how to reimagine the justice system to support restoration instead of retribution.

In addition to leading the Brennan Center Justice Program, Eisen is the author of Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration and has written dozens of reports and articles on how to reduce the United States’ reliance on incarceration.



Special thanks to the contributors to the book

David Alan Sklansky, Jonathan Simon, Lenore Anderson, Emile DeWeaver, Lauren-Brooke Eisen, Ed Chung, Paul Butler, Martin Sabelli, Alison Siegler, Andrew Cohen, Morgan Godvin, Adam Gelb, Theodore R. Johnson, Monica Bell, Nkechi Taifa, Shon Hopwood, Rahsaan “New York” Thomas, Christopher Blackwell, Kathy Foer-Morse, Asia Johnson, Homer Venters, Michele Deitch, Ram Subramanian, Steven L. Chanenson, Jordan M. Hyatt, Synøve N. Andersen, Kim Taylor-Thompson, Michael Mendoza, Alexes Harris, Cameron Kimble, Ames Grawert, Peggy McGarry, Blake Strode, Jennifer M Chacón, Khalil Cumberbatch, David Singleton, Carlton Miller, Karol Mason, Erica Bond, Heather Rice Minus, Jason Pye, Alia Nahra, Hernandez Stroud, Jeremy Travis, and Bruce Western




The Commonwealth Club of California

L.B. Eisen joined Kevin McCracken from The Last Mile, Michael Mendoza, Ken Oliver from the Checkr Foundation and retired Judge LaDoris Cordell for a thoughtful conversation on the second chances their organizations are providing and efforts to reform the existing criminal justice system.


“This book weaves a path toward reform of the fragmented system of criminal punishment in the United States, which produces too many harms and too little safety for anyone. Essays brilliantly distill the histories of control and racism, and they map how to reorient interactions on streets, in prisons, and after release to recognize the political voice and social worth of all members of the country.”

— Judith Resnik, Arthur Liman Professor of Law, Yale Law School

“As someone who endured fourteen years within the confines of federal prison, I have witnessed the stark and often brutal realities of our criminal justice system. Excessive Punishment is a beacon of insight onto the cycle of mass incarceration that grips our nation.” 

— Louis L. Reed, activist and film producer

“This book brings together an amazing array of contributors to outline the biggest problems with American conceptions and implementation of punishment—and also to propose solutions.”

— Emily Bazelon, author of Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration 

“In 2020, millions of Americans came together in an unprecedented call for a more just society. This collection of essays by some of the country’s foremost thinkers continues that work—helping us understand the history of our carceral system and offering a blueprint for how we can create safe, healthy, and thriving communities from coast to coast.” 

— James Cadogan, executive director, National Basketball Social Justice Coalition

“This book breaks through the tropes about what it takes for our criminal legal system to ensure public safety; it smashes the generalizations that have fueled our failed experiment in mass incarceration for the past several decades. And it does so with experts of all kinds—scholars, activists, practitioners—who chronicle how our system went off the rails and, more important, how to fix it.” 

— Judge Nancy Gertner