From the Editors

A first step toward treating offenders like humans

The new criminal justice law is modest. But it may signal a shifting narrative.

If you want to change the world, says civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, you have to change the narrative. For decades, the dominant American narrative on crime has been relentlessly punitive: the assumed way to deal with lawbreakers, even nonviolent ones, is to add police, increase criminal prosecutions, and impose longer and harsher prison sentences.

That “get tough” narrative, often fueled by racist fears, launched the so-called War on Drugs in the late 1970s and led to passage of the 1994 crime bill. Millions of nonviolent drug offenders—a disproportionate number of them young African American males—were swept into prison. Harsh three-strikes laws took away judges’ ability to use discretion when sentencing repeat offenders. As a result, the incarceration rate quintupled between 1972 and 2007, and the United States became the country with the largest prison population in the world.

But the coherence of the “get tough” narrative has begun to crumble. More and more people across the political spectrum have recognized that the resulting policies have been ineffective and inhumane. The most grievous cost is the years inmates have unnecessarily spent behind bars, apart from family and community and away from opportunities to go to school, hold a job, and build a better life. The financial cost of keeping 2 million people in prison has also been an enormous burden on governments.