Jason DeParle in the New York Review of Books:
For much of the twentieth century, about one American in a thousand was confined to a cell. The proportion of Americans behind bars started rising in the mid-Seventies, and by 2003 had done so for twenty-eight consecutive years. Counting jails, there are now seven Americans in every thousand behind bars. That is nearly five times the historic norm and seven times higher than most of Western Europe.
The penal population grew because crime increased; because the number of police and prosecutors grew (which raised the odds of punishment); and because policymakers, disillusioned with the ethos of rehabilitation, imposed tougher penalties. The increase in severity occurred on the front end with longer sentences and reduced judicial discretion to shorten them, and on the back end by making fewer prisoners eligible for early release.
Meanwhile, the “war on drugs” led to the arrest of growing numbers of small-time users and dealers. By the late 1990s, 60 percent of federal inmates were in for drug offenses. The result is an ever-growing prison system, populated to a significant degree by people who need not be there. It was no liberal advocate but Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy who offered a damning view of criminal justice in the United States: “Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long.”