The Challenge of Mass Incarceration in America


The United States penal population has grown every year for the past thirty-six years. The rate of imprisonment in the United States is now four times its historic average and seven times higher than in Western Europe. Even more striking than the overall level of incarceration is the concentrated force of the penal system on the most disadvantaged segments of the population. One-third of African American male high-school dropouts under age 40 are currently behind bars. Among all African American men born since the mid-1960s, more than 20 percent will go to prison, nearly twice the number that will graduate college. This extraordinary pattern of penal confinement has been called “mass incarceration,” a rate of incarceration so high that it affects not only the individual offender, but also whole social groups.

Though largely invisible in public conversations about social inequality in America, mass incarceration is a growing issue at the federal, state, and local levels and threatens to undermine the most basic goals of the civil rights movement. This study examined the scope of mass incarceration, its political and economic significance, and its social impact, weighing the concerns about crime control, rehabilitation, and more fundamental issues of social justice.



Committee Members

Sasha Abramsky

Author and journalist

Lawrence D. Bobo

Harvard University
W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences
Academy Member

Harold Clarke

Massachusetts Department of Corrections

David W. Garland

New York University
Arthur T. Vanderbilt Professor of Law; Professor of Sociology
Academy Member

Marie Gottschalk

University of Pennsylvania

Mark A.R. Kleiman

University of California, Los Angeles

Candace Kruttschnitt

University of Toronto

Nicola Lacey

London School of Economics

Glenn Martin

Fortune Society

Zachary Norris

Ella Baker Center

Joan Petersilia

Stanford University

Robert J. Sampson

Harvard University
Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences
Academy Member

Dora Schriro

New York City Department of Corrections

Mindy Tarlow

Center for Employment Opportunities

Loïc Wacquant

University of California, Berkeley; Centre de Sociologie Européenne, Paris

Leonard Ward

New Jersey State Parole Board

Robert Weisberg

Stanford University

Diane Williams

Safer Foundation

Peter Young

Peter Young Housing, Industries and Treatment


News & Updates

News & Updates



Project Outcomes

Project Outcomes

The Academy created a task force to develop increased understanding of this issue and to promote public discussion. Members of the task force developed the Summer 2010 issue of Daedalus. In 2018 the article, "Incarceration & social inequality" by Bruce Western and Becky Pettit was the second most read Daedalus article on MIT Press in a twelve month period, eight years after the issue was published.

The project also sponsored a series of roundtable discussions, bringing together stakeholders who do not normally have an opportunity to gather, including representatives of the criminal justice community, policy-makers, community activists, and practitioners working with formerly incarcerated individuals. The meetings provided an opportunity for these groups to exchange ideas in a neutral setting and to learn from one another’s experiences. Listen to a symposium on the challenges of mass incarceration.

Project leaders also worked with officials from the executive branch, state officials, as well as Congress to provide objective information on this policy matter.