Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld once said that prisons should be a "tour through the circles of hell," where inmates should learn only "the joys of busting rocks." Since the mid-1970s, as belief in the possibility of rehabilitation waned, this retributive expectation for punishment has exploded into the "justice model" of corrections. Discretionary parole has given way to longer and longer determinate sentences, coupled with an accelerating erosion of reformative prison programs. America is certainly "locking them up": Within three decades, the rate of imprisonment has risen from 110 to 476 prison inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents. But we aren't throwing away the key: 95 percent of all inmates will eventually be released, many with little or no treatment, education, or vocational training. In the last 30 years, the rate of paroling inmates has risen from below 150,000 to more than 600,000 per year.
The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation, by far. The sheer number of 2 million incarcerated (including county jails)—plus the fact that the majority of prisoners who are paroled come back to prison—highlights a fundamental flaw in our penal sanctions even as it evokes a sense of despair about how it might be changed. The very institutions that society is using to punish and exclude criminals are also playing a critical role in defeating the possibility of offenders redeeming their lives. In When Prisoners Come Home, Joan Petersilia explores the consequences of this runaway get-tough-on-crime train, and she suggests possible solutions to realize a better return on the increasing expense of incarceration.