Public Service Announcement Launched Urging Americans to ‘Wake Up’ to 50-Year Mass Incarceration Crisis

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By Audrey Sawyer 

WASHINGTON, DC – For the last 50 years, the United States has advanced punitive policies that have led to a staggering increase in the prison population, according to The Sentencing Project, noting the prison population has grown 500 percent since 1973, with nearly two million people today (disproportionately Black Americans) incarcerated in our nation’s jails and prisons.

There continues to be widespread misinformation about our criminal legal system and political posturing around failed “tough on crime” policy proposals which are not productive in actually making communities safer, said the project.

With 2023 marking 50 years of mass incarceration in America, The Sentencing Project has released a new Public Service Announcement, “50 Years and a Wake Up,” that raises awareness about the dire state of the U.S. criminal legal system and the devastating impact of incarceration on communities and families. The PSA will run in broadcast markets across the U.S..

Acting Executive Director of The Sentencing Project, Kara Gotsch, argues, “America’s 50-year experiment with mass incarceration has been a profound moral and policy failure, perpetuating cycles of despair and retribution, tearing apart communities, and destroying countless lives. Billions of taxpayer dollars are poured into this failed system that seems designed to perpetuate itself. It is a profound tragedy that should stir the conscience of our nation.”

Kara added the project hopes “this public service announcement will urge Americans to wake up to the fact that America is facing a mass incarceration crisis, and that there is a better path forward to build healthy and safe communities.”

Joél Castón, a formerly incarcerated activist featured in the PSA, said, “After 50 years, it is clear that America’s experiment with extreme sentencing policies and mass incarceration has failed. If mass incarceration made us any safer, we’d be one of the safest countries in the world, and we are far from it.”

Castón added the country “must recognize the cost — not just in dollars but in lost dreams and fractured communities — and chart a new course toward centering humanity, liberty and justice for all of America.”

Another formerly incarcerated activist shown in the PSA named Kemba Smith stated, “Over the past 50 years, America has doubled down on a deeply troubling and counterproductive criminal legal system that perpetuates cycles of crime and inequality. It tears families apart, leaving children without their parents and communities fractured. It siphons resources away from education, mental health, and social programs, hindering our nation’s progress. Instead of rehabilitation, it often breeds resentment and desperation, making reintegration into society harder.”

Smith added, “It’s time to shift our focus towards restorative justice and community-based solutions that truly address the root causes of crime and give everyone a chance at redemption and a brighter future.”

The public education campaign, 50 Years and a Wake Up: Ending The Mass Incarceration Crisis In America was launched earlier this year by The Sentencing Project alongside a coalition of advocates, experts, and partners.

Current movement partners (aside from the previously mentioned The Sentencing Project) participating in the public education campaign include the Brennan Center for Justice, ACLU, the American Bar Association, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Color of Change, Festival Center, Hip Hop Caucus, Human Rights for Kids, JustLeadership USA, Last Prisoner Project, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Vera Institute of Justice, and We Got Us Now (children of incarcerated parents). 

The coalition said the title for the campaign was born out of a colloquial phrase that incarcerated people sometimes use to describe the life of their sentence, plus the day of their release (e.g. “I have 20 years and a wake up”), and the phrase too serves as a double-entendre, calling for our country to “wake up” to the harsh and dangerous realities of mass incarceration in America.

About The Author

Audrey is a senior at UC San Diego majoring in Political Science (Comparative Politics emphasis). After graduation, Audrey plans on attending graduate school and is considering becoming a public defender.

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