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50 Years and a Wake Up: Ending The Mass Incarceration Crisis In America

The campaign raises awareness about the dire state of the U.S. criminal legal system, the devastating impact of incarceration on communities and families, and proposes more effective crime prevention strategies for our country.

Fifty years ago, the United States embarked on a path of mass incarceration that has led to a staggering increase in the prison population. Today, almost 2 million individuals – disproportionately Black Americans – are incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails. The prison population has grown 500% since 1973, the year America began to sharply increase its prison population.

U.S. State and Federal Prison Population, 1925-2021

The social, moral, and fiscal costs associated with the large-scale, decades-long investment in mass imprisonment cannot be justified by any evidence of its effectiveness. Misguided changes in sentencing law and policy – not crime – account for the majority of the increase in correctional supervision. Mass incarceration instigates poor physical, psychological, and economic outcomes for the people who experience imprisonment, for their families, as well as for the broader community. Imprisonment leads to declining prospects for employment and results in lower earnings in the longer term. Food insecurity, housing instability, and reliance on public assistance are also associated with prior imprisonment.

This year, The Sentencing Project and a coalition of advocates, experts, and partners are launching a public education campaign, 50 Years and a Wake Up: Ending The Mass Incarceration Crisis In America. The campaign raises awareness about the dire state of the criminal legal system in the country, the devastating impact of incarceration on communities and families, and proposes more effective crime prevention strategies for our country.

The title for this campaign was born out of a colloquial phrase that incarcerated people sometimes use to describe the life of their sentence, plus one day (e.g. “I have 20 years and a wake up”). It also serves as a double-entendre, calling for our country to “wake up” to the harsh and dangerous realities of mass incarceration in America.

Get the Facts

Mass Incarceration Trends

The Sentencing Project’s new report highlights the growth in state and federal prison populations over the past 50 years, and its far reaching effect on families, communities, and society as a whole.

Trends
Join the Movement

Partner Toolkit

This toolkit contains talking points, a narrative document that provides a consistent way for all organizations to describe this campaign, and social media guidance.

Toolkit

Mass Incarceration in America: By The Numbers

  • Over five million people are under supervision by the criminal legal system.
  • Nearly two million people, disproportionately Black, are incarcerated in prisons and jails. In the early 1970s, this figure was 360,000.
  • Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men and Latinx men are 2.5 times as likely. Nationally, one in 81 Black adults in the United States is serving time in state prison.
  • The number of people in prison began a marginal decline beginning in 2010. Despite this modest progress, it would take 75 years at the current pace of decarceration to return to the imprisonment levels before mass incarceration began.
  • As of 2022, 4.6 million Americans were unable to vote due to state laws restricting voting rights for those with a felony conviction in their past.
  • Youth were swept up in mass incarceration’s harmful policies, particularly Black and Latinx children. During the peak year, more than 11,000 youth under age 18 were living in jails and prisons. Thankfully, this figure has dropped precipitously since, but there are no conditions in which young people should be transferred to the adult criminal legal system.
Advocacy

Join the Movement

This year, The Sentencing Project and a coalition of advocates, experts, and partners are launching a public education campaign, 50 Years and a Wake Up: Ending The Mass Incarceration Crisis In America. The campaign raises awareness about the dire state of the criminal legal system in the country, the devastating impact of incarceration on communities and families, and proposes more effective crime prevention strategies for our country.

Contact our Senior Director of Advocacy, Nicole D. Porter, at nporter@sentencingproject.org to become a partner in the 50 Years and a Wake Up Campaign.