It’s a bit startling how suddenly mass incarceration has come to seem like a really bad idea. There have been stubborn opponents all along, of course—and no doubt the incarcerated themselves were always skeptics—but as America’s rate of incarceration doubled from the mid‑1970s into the mid-’80s, then doubled again from the mid-’80s into the mid-’90s, and then continued to rise until the United States out-incarcerated every other country to become by far the world’s most ambitious warden (until about one in every four prisoners anywhere were behind American bars), most of us just went about our business as though nothing strange was happening. Publications like this one might have covered the phenomenon, but no political leader was really campaigning against it. You might say, in the enduring coinage of the sociologist and senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, that Americans were defining deviancy down.
Or so it seems, because now, from the far left to the far right and, most remarkably, around the political center, politicians are scrambling over one another to deplore mass incarceration (a development that should also cheer the beleaguered advocates of bipartisanship). One should be humble about declaring the end of an era. But historians of the future might do worse than to cite the moment in July when Bill Clinton, who worked as hard as any Democrat to blunt the Republicans’ edge on law and order, said he had erred in signing a bill mandating longer sentences. “The bad news is, we had a lot of people who were essentially locked up who were minor actors, for way too long,” he said.