The last quarter of the twentieth century stands out as the most remarkable period of change in American penal policy even when the entire history of the United States is considered. Nothing in the two centuries before 1975 would prepare observers to expect that a long run of stable rates of incarceration would shift to a fourfold expansion of rates of imprisonment in less than three decades. This Article will consider the origins and careers of proposals for penal legislation in a time of radical change. How, when, and why were legislative acts involved in the massive shift of policy after the early 1970s? What institutional controls were implicated in penal policy changes after 1975, and how did they function? To what extent was legislation a driving force in changes in penal policy during the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s? What does a review of the recent history of American criminal justice tell us about what comes next?

In this Article, Part I presents introductory descriptions of where penal policy is made in the American governmental system and outlines national-level measurements of punishment trends over the period since 1975. Part II addresses issues of quality control in shaping, passing, implementing, and reviewing penal legislation in recent U.S. experience. Part III then addresses the role of penal legislation in changing penal practices in the past generation. The final Part discusses two questions about the future of imprisonment...

 

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