History students across the country grow up learning that the United States of America is “the land of the free” but what they aren’t being taught is that the US is also the land of the harshly punished and overly incarcerated as well. Currently, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the WORLD with an incarceration rate that has increased by 500 percent over the past 40 years. A closer look at how harsh the US is when it comes to punishment, one would find that 1 out 7 individuals incarcerated is serving a life sentence; that is a whooping 314,000 people that will spend significant portions of their lives locked down in a jail cell like an animal. 

Why are we locking down men and women (primarily of color) at the highest rates of the world, separating families, and destroying communities? Because the United States is addicted to punishment. According to the Prison Policy Institute, “around the globe, governments respond to illegal activity and social unrest in many ways. Here in the United States, policymakers in the 1970s made the decision to start incarcerating Americans at globally unprecedented rates. The decades that followed have revealed that the growth in the U.S. prison population can be more closely attributed to ideological policy choices than actual crime rates. The record also shows that our country’s experiment with mass incarceration has not managed to significantly enhance public safety, but instead has consistently and disproportionately stunted the social and economic wellbeing of poor communities and communities of color for generations.”

There are twelve steps to curing an addiction that the United States must prescribe to immediately to stop this tortuous, destructive, and costly behavior: 

  1. Admit powerlessness: Without full acknowledgement of the terror of over-punishment, change and relief within our communities is dismal. 
  2. Find hope: Look to other models of public safety that truly rehabilitate, heal, and restore. 
  3. Surrender: STOP ALL UNNECESSARY INCARCERATION. There are offenses that require a simple citation. 
  4. Take inventory: Solicit help from some of the nation’s best institutions to investigate the best approaches ending egregious punishment practices. 
  5. Share inventory: Go public! Share feasible and immediate next steps to ending current policies that punish rather than rehabilitate. 
  6. Become ready: Have resources and services prepared to receive those being released from incarceration. 
  7. Ask for help: Request community-based organizations to provide community-based solutions and supply the financial resources to help them do so. 
  8. List amends: Apologize to the communities that have been devastated by harmful sentencing practices and policies. 
  9. Make amends: For those that have been falsely accused and incarcerated, pay them their reprieve without a lengthy process.
  10. Continue inventory: Continue to assess the criminal justice system for loopholes that could lead to increased and unnecessary punishment. 
  11. Be reflective and vigilant: Remain conscious of how the country morphed into the world’s largest incarceration hub and halt any proposed policies that could create a slippery slope in the wrong direction. 
  12. Help others: Make sure the US becomes a leader is criminal justice transformation by helping others around the world reimagine sentencing, punishment, and public safety. 

Written by: Sasha Legette