This book begins by arguing that America's high incarceration rate prompts impassioned debate. Politicians and activists, editorialists and community leaders consider a range of issues. They discuss the severity of drug crime sentencing, the ethics of for-profit prisons, and the inordinate number of racial minorities behind bars. The focus on these admittedly important issues, however, has obscured the ongoing discussion about what prisons should do. For more than two hundred years, Americans have debated the prison's purpose. Should it be retributive or reformative? Do we put people in prison to punish them or to rehabilitate them? Or is it a little of both? In 2010, California officials considered releasing thousands of inmates in order to balance the budget. The human cost—counted in broken families and decimated communities—can hardly be calculated.
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