German and French prison rules require prisoners to be addressed respectfully as "Herr So-and-So" or "Monsieur So-and-So." Prisoners also receive good health care and even paid vacations. Why are such practices not only nearly nonexistent in the United States, but nearly inconceivable? Why are prisoners punished much more harshly in the U.S. than in Europe? James Q. Whitman, professor of comparative and foreign law at Yale University, devotes himself to answering such questions.

Whitman documents many ways in which U.S. prison systems are harsher than those of Europe. The U.S. criminalizes a larger number of moral offenses, subjects more classes of persons to criminal liability, and more frequently enforces standing laws. Mandatory prison sentences are longer, and punishments are less likely to be adjusted for mitigating circumstances. Whitman's many examples of America's extreme harshness confirm U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stevens's statement opposing a 1984 ruling against prisoner rights: "[This ruling] declares prisoners to be little more than chattels, a view I thought society had outgrown long ago."

We all have much at stake in understanding America's harsh justice. Since 1980, the population in U.S. jails and prisons has quadrupled, representing the largest and most rapid expansion of the prison population in world history. Most of the 2 million now incarcerated are nonviolent offenders. This high incarceration rate does considerable damage to American society as a whole. Some 500,000 people go into U.S. jails and prisons each year, while an estimated 600,000 come out annually, carrying the wounds inflicted in prison back into the larger society. One-and-a-half million U.S. children have a parent in prison.