Letter to ABA Justice Kennedy Commission

Letter accompanying a submission of 'The Prison Index: Taking the Pulse of the Crime Control Industry' to the American Bar Association to inform its review of criminal justice policy.

by Peter Wagner and Brigette Sarabi, November 3, 2003

The Western Prison Project and the Prison Policy Initiative sent this letter to members of the ABA Justice Kennedy Commission:

November 3, 2003

Dear Member of the ABA Justice Kennedy Commission,

The Western Prison Project and the Prison Policy Initiative were excited to learn that the ABA has answered the challenge issued by Justice Kennedy to examine U.S. incarceration policy. As you know, our nation’s recent reliance on incarceration as a one-size-fits-all solution to social problems has put the world’s foremost democracy into the unenviable position as the world’s leading denier of liberty.

In lieu of submitting formal testimony, we are sending to each member of your commission a copy of our newest report The Prison Index: Taking the Pulse of the Crime Control Industry. The report summarizes state of crime control in the United States, finding that a combination of sentencing policies and economic factors have created a criminal justice system that fails by all possible metrics but one: the creation of more prisoners.

We are heartened by your response to Justice Kennedy’s call to break this morally and economically bankrupt cycle of building more and more prisons to house ever greater numbers of our citizens in ever more deplorable conditions. We hope your forthcoming report will have great influence.

There is precedent for a nation taking the advice of its professional class and transforming its criminal justice policies. Finland used to have a high incarceration rate without a European peer — except for that of the Soviet Union. Coming out of World War II and into the Cold War, that was the last society Finland wanted to resemble. Like the United States, Finnish leaders had become accustomed to high levels of incarceration. Academic exchanges with foreign criminologists put the exceptionalism of the Finnish situation on the policy agenda. Once the highest incarcerator in Western Europe, Finland today incarcerates only 50 of its citizens per 100,000 people, second lowest after Iceland.

We hope that the reexamination of our criminal system you are seeking will lead to a similar transformation. There may not be a simple answer to the question “How low should the prison population be?” But we can clearly say that Finland does quite well with one tenth the incarceration rate of our country.


Brigette Sarabi
Executive Director

Western Prison Project

Peter Wagner
Assistant Director
Prison Policy Initiative

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