PSA urges Americans to 'Wake Up' to 50-year mass incarceration crisis

WASHINGTON, DC – As 2023 marks 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 United States.

For the last 50 years, the United States has advanced punitive policies that have led to a staggering increase in the prison population. The prison population has grown 500% since 1973, and today, almost 2 million people – disproportionately Black Americans – are incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails. Alarmingly, there continues to be widespread misinformation about our criminal legal system and political posturing around failed “tough on crime” policy proposals that do nothing to actually make our communities safer.

“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,” said Kara Gotsch, Acting Executive Director of The Sentencing Project. “We hope 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.” 

“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,” said Joél Castón, a formerly incarcerated activist who is featured in the PSA. 

“We 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." 

“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,” said Kemba Smith, a formerly incarcerated activist who is featured in the PSA. 

“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.” 

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

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”). It also serves as a double-entendre, calling for our country to “wake up” to the harsh and dangerous realities of mass incarceration in America. 

Current movement partners participating in the public education campaign include: ACLU; American Bar Association; Brennan Center for Justice; Congressional Black Caucus Foundation; Color of Change; Festival Center; Hip Hop Caucus; Human Rights for Kids; JustLeadershipUSA ; Last Prisoner Project ; National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; The Sentencing Project; Vera Institute for Justice; and We Got Us Now.