Press Release

The Sentencing Project, Partner Organizations Launch Public Education Campaign: “50 Years and A Wake Up: Ending The Mass Incarceration Crisis In America”

The year 2023 marks the 50th year since the U.S. prison population began its unprecedented surge. The Sentencing Project and partners launch campaign and two new reports illustrating the scope of mass incarceration.

Related to: Incarceration, Sentencing Reform, Voting Rights, Youth Justice, Drug Policy, Racial Justice, State Advocacy, Federal Advocacy, Gender Justice, Collateral Consequences

Today, The Sentencing Project and a group of advocates, experts, and partners announced the launch of a new public education campaign, 50 Years and a Wake Up: Ending The Mass Incarceration Crisis In America. The year 2023 marks the 50th year since the U.S. prison population began its unprecedented surge. The goal of this campaign is to leverage the historical significance of the current year as an opportunity to build widespread awareness of mass incarceration’s devastating impact on American communities and propose more effective and humane paths forward.

Today, over five million people are under supervision by the criminal legal system, and nearly two million people – disproportionately Black – are living in prisons and jails instead of their communities. In the early 1970s this count was 360,000. Misguided changes in sentencing law and policy – not crime – account for the majority of the increase in correctional supervision.

The Sentencing Project has released two new reports that illustrate the mass incarceration problem in America.

“Through the 50 Years and a Wake Up campaign, politicians and the public will learn about the dire state of the U.S. criminal legal system, the devastating impact of incarceration on communities and families, and they will be urged to support more effective crime prevention strategies for our country,” said Amy Fettig, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project. “Fifty years of this failed experiment leaves the nation with a criminal legal system characterized by racism, excessive sentences, and cruelty.”

The harms of mass incarceration have fallen disproportionately on people in Black and Brown communities. 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 launch of this campaign comes as the nation mourns the killing of Tyre Nichols and other victims of police violence. Nearly three years after the murder of George Floyd, Congress has failed to address the terror of racialized police killings that plague our nation. Despite Congress’s passage of sentencing reforms in recent years, the federal prison population has increased the last two years after nearly a decade of decline. Upending overcriminalization and mass incarceration requires constant vigilance and a commitment from officials at every level of government.

“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,” said Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. “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. There is a better way forward for our country.”

Partner groups participating in this public education campaign include:

  • The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
  • The American Bar Association (ABA)
  • The Brennan Center for Justice
  • The Festival Center
  • Human Rights for Kids
  • JustLeadershipUSA
  • The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL)
  • Vera Institute of Justice
  • We Got Us Now

“It is essential we acknowledge how a biased criminal justice system, and the subsequent mass incarceration of Black people, is wreaking havoc on our communities,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, President and CEO of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. “Through research conducted through our National Racial Equity Initiative, we found that mass incarceration policies and high imprisonment rates have profound generational implications on the stability and advancement of Black communities and are directly correlated with other societal issues plaguing the Black community such as poverty, lack of employment opportunities, economic status, education, and health. Our nation needs fundamental reform to our criminal justice system starting with the policies and recommendations outlined in the report highlighted today by The Sentencing Project.”

The title for this campaign was born out of a colloquial phrase that incarcerated people sometimes use to describe the length of their sentence, plus one day (e.g. “I have 20 years and a wake up,” with the “wake up” being the day they are released). 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.


About The Sentencing Project

The Sentencing Project promotes effective and humane responses to crime that minimize imprisonment and criminalization of youth and adults by promoting racial, ethnic, economic, and gender justice. You can find our media guidance on crime coverage here.

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