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America’s criminal legal system is unduly harsh. Experts explain how we got here and solutions that will benefit everyone.

America can’t shrink its reliance on mass incarceration until we confront our approach to punishment. These essays by renowned experts in a variety of fields focus on our deep-rooted impulse to punish people in ways that are far beyond what could be considered proportionate. Together, they illustrate how necessary it is to rein in the punitive excess of the criminal legal system, which is inexorably entwined with the legacy of slavery. They also highlight how we have marginalized poor communities and people of color through criminalization and punishment.

Addressing a range of issues — from policing to prosecution to incarceration to life after prison — the writers highlight how our nation has prioritized excess punishment over more supportive and less traumatic ways of dealing with social harm. The essays explore whether, when, and how we could have made different decisions that would have changed the way these systems of punishment and social control evolved.

Looking ahead, they also ask how we can learn from this failed experiment with mass incarceration and prioritize human dignity over human misery.

We hope this series will spur increased discussion on these vital topics. 

L.B. Eisen
Director, Brennan Center Justice Program

Photo illustration: The Washington Post/Robert Daemmrich/Third Eye Co/Getty

The Essays