When there is a dispute concerning your poor, don't tamper with the justice due them. Stay clear of false accusations. Don't contribute to the death of innocent and good people. I don't let the wicked off the hook." - Exodus 23:6-7(MSG)

Over the past 40 years, crime rates in the U.S. have fluctuated, while incarceration rates have increased by 500 percent. By 2012, 2.2 million people were confined in prisons and jails across the country, making the U.S. the world leader in incarceration. This culture of imprisonment begins at a young age, with zero tolerance policies enforcing harsh penalties for relatively minor misbehavior in schools, including truancy, dress code violations, and non-violent disruptive behavior. Only 5 percent of school suspensions nationally are for weapons or drugs, while 95% are for disruptive or other behavior. This trend of criminalizing non-violent behavior continued as many low-level drug offenses were classified as felonies. For example, possessing one gram of LSD can lead to a five-year mandatory minimum sentence in federal prison. Mandatory minimum sentences are 'one-size-fits-all' sentencing laws that limit the ability of judges to take individual situations into account. In addition, states began passing three-strikes laws, which mandate a life sentence for anyone convicted of a "serious violent felony" - including robbery - with two or more previous convictions on their record. Even so, about 95% of all prisoners will eventually be released back into their communities, but the punishment doesn't end at the prison gate. Drug felons are permanently barred from receiving public assistance such as food stamps, Medicaid, SSI, financial aid, and federal housing assistance. Barriers also loom from lack of access to job training, drug and mental health treatment, and transitional housing.  Today, over 5 million Americans are being denied the right to vote because of a past or current felony conviction.

Videos on the Legal System & Mass Incarceration


  • How may our existing school discipline policies place children on a path toward imprisonment?
  • Is imprisonment an effective and/or appropriate response to drug offenses? If not, what is?
  • How might mandatory minimum sentences serve to engender future criminal behavior?
  • What are other alternatives to imprisoning non-violent offenders?
  • How does our current retributive justice system contribute to the process of creating criminals?


  • Locked Out by Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen
  • The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
  • “Why You’re in Deep Trouble If You Can’t Afford a Lawyer,” by Hannah Levintova, Jaeah Lee, and Brett Brownell (MotherJones, 5/6/2013)
  • “Zero Tolerance and Exclusionary School Discipline Policies Harm Students and Contribute to the Cradle to Prison Pipeline,” Children’s Defense Fund Issue Brief, November 2012
  • “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History,” Heather Ann Thompson (The Journal of American History, December 2010)