Human Rights Watch Issues National Report on Incarceration in the United States


In a new report titled US: A Nation Behind Bars, Human Rights Watch, an international human rights organization, gives an excellent overview of the history of incarceration in America. The report is incisive and at times gut wrenching, making it clear that the “Tough on Crime” strategies adopted by legislators are not only costly but also overly aggressive while taking a huge toll on American communities.  

The report rightly points out that incarceration in America is often used as a quick fix to social issues where other remedies would be more successful. According to co-author and senior advisor to the US program, Jamie Fellner, “Fair and prudent punishment is not only a core human rights principle, but a core principle of American justice that has been neglected for far too long.” The report also speaks to mandatory sentencing and three-strikes laws, which have taken away the discretion of judges to assign sentences befitting the level of the offense as well as the trend of trying teenagers under 18 as adults as a way to manage youth crime. Over-criminalization is an issue where acts that do not rise to a criminal level are often charged as crimes, a clear violation of the eighth amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The report hits a positive note, however, in stating that there is growing momentum to reduce mass incarceration.  For legislators on both sides of the aisle, the fact that incarceration is costly has brought this issue to the forefront as a way to reduce costly budget line items while seeking new strategies.  For this reason, solutions such as Justice Reinvestment are gaining more credibility among US lawmakers.  However, it is important that these same legislators are made aware of the human rights issues that are even more important than the financial savings that new strategies can provide.  Through the current overuse of the penal system for the most minor of offenses, families are destroyed, big brothers and sisters are locked away leaving the younger ones to follow, fathers and mothers are taken from their children and their children are given to the care of strangers.  The community needs the change that a more sensible, fair, and merciful approach to solving social issues would provide.  Human Rights Watch is urging legislators to consider the following:


  • Ensure that the severity of the punishment does not exceed the gravity of the crime;
  • Reform or eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing laws that prevent judges from tailoring sentences to the individual crime and the particular defendant;
  • Treat adolescents and children in a manner appropriate to their age and capacity for change, and do not subject them to all the same criminal procedures and sanctions as adults;
  • Reduce or eliminate criminal sanctions for immigration offenders, especially those who have done nothing more than enter the country illegally;
  • End criminal sanctions for possession of illegal drugs for personal use; and
  • Ensure that criminal law is not by its terms or enforcement biased against any racial, ethnic, or religious group, as, for example, in the disproportionate enforcement of drug laws against black people in the US.


US: A Nation Behind Bars is a compelling and easy read.  It is a great primer for those who are just becoming informed about the problems with the American justice system, spelling out the problems in plain speak.  It charts a course for a more positive future and tells us how we can make it happen.  Take a look.  It is well worth your time.