50 Years of Mass Incarceration: Research and Advocacy for Reform

Explore research publications and advocacy webinars to end mass incarceration and racial injustice in America.

Related to: Incarceration, Racial Justice

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.

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.

Explore the resources below to learn 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.

Policy Brief

Mass Incarceration Trends

Our 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.


Join the Movement

The Sentencing Project and a coalition of advocates, experts, and partners launched a public education campaign, 50 Years and a Wake Up: Ending The Mass Incarceration Crisis In America. 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”).

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

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