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The United States incarcerates far more people than any other country in the world, at rates 7-10 times higher than other liberal democracies. Indeed, while the US holds only about 5 percent of the world's population, it contains nearly 25 percent of its prisoners. At every stage of the criminal justice process-including plea bargaining, sentencing, prison conditions, rehabilitation, parole, and societal reentry-the US has harsher and more punitive practices than other comparable countries. Media headlines allude to the "radically humane" prisons of Europe, sometimes presenting them as too soft on crime. But when lower rates of incarceration and better prison conditions often correlate with lower costs, increased public safety, and more successful rehabilitation, why do prisons in the US remain so punitive?
In Unusually Cruel, Marc Morjé Howard argues that the United States' prison system is exceptional-in a truly shameful way. Although other scholars have focused on the internal dynamics that have produced this massive carceral system, Howard provides the first sustained comparative analysis that shows just how far the US prison system lies outside of the norm of established democracies. The book compares the US to other advanced industrialized democracies, with particular focus on the three comparative cases of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
Although Unusually Cruel paints a grim picture of the American system, it also provides a hopeful message. Howard identifies practical and proven solutions from other countries that are less punitive and more productive, as well as models that could help the US get out of its criminal justice quagmire.
Marc Morjé Howard is Professor of Government and Law and Director of the Prison Reform Initiative at Georgetown University. He is also the author of The Politics of Citizenship in Europe.