Discussing “Excessive Punishment: How the Justice System Creates Mass Incarceration”


In a recent event held at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, thought leaders in the arena of criminal justice reform and fair chance hiring came together to focus on reimagining the justice system and discuss why the United States Justice System is so punitive. 

Moderated by author and former California Superior Court Judge, Judge LaDoris Cordell, the conversation delved into the complexities of the American criminal justice system and its reliance on mass incarceration. 

A key point of discussion was the Brennan Center for Justice’s publication of the series of essays titled “Excessive Punishment: How the Justice System Creates Mass Incarceration.” These essays illuminate the various ways in which local, state, and federal agencies contribute to the cycle of mass incarceration and hinder efforts at reform. The book’s theme was the focal point for the evening, with meaningful dialogue from the panelists. Panelists included Executive Director of Checkr, Ken Oliver, Former Director of Advocacy at Anti Recidivism Coalition, Michael Mendoza, Senior Director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, L.B. Eisen, and from The Last Mile, Executive Director, Kevin McCracken.

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As each panelist spoke, they highlighted the need to address our society’s inclination toward excessive punishment, which is often disproportionate  to the harm. The panelists discussed the purpose of the book, highlighting its multi-year project nature and its aim to explain the origins of the overly punitive criminal legal system in the United States.

They emphasized the need to convince policymakers and decision-makers to reimagine the justice system, pointing out the country’s deep-rooted impulse to punish excessively. The various aspects of excess punishment include lengthy prison sentencing, life without possibility of parole, and barriers to successful reentry like background checks, debt, and restrictive laws surrounding people with a record. Senior Director of The Brennan’ Center’s Justice program, L.B. Eisen  underscored the importance of public opinion in driving policy change, expressing hope that the essays will help change hearts and minds to shift away from harsh and ineffective punitive policies towards more effective and humane approaches to public safety. 

The discussion soon moved to focus on the potential for transformative change through second chances–or fair chance employment– both for individuals directly impacted by the system and for advocates working toward systemic reform. TLM’s Kevin McCracken shared, “One thing that hasn’t been touched on is the billions of dollars of waste because we’re missing people from our communities.  I’m not just talking about tax dollars, I’m talking about giving people sustainable employment that they’re putting back into their communities.” Fair chance employment is a crucial component in helping individuals successfully reenter society and reducing recidivism rates. Kevin emphasized the importance of providing opportunities for those that are system impacted, noting that TLM has “been able to build out a program that’s not only been successful inside, but also when people return.”

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Recognizing the complexities involved, it is possible to both advocate for measures to keep communities safe and explore ways to promote rehabilitation and second chances within the justice system to build stronger communities. “When you give them a 75, 000 a year job, they become the coaches of their son’s baseball team. They’re model citizens when they’re in the house because they now have a stake in the game. They have dignity and they have something they’ve never had before, which is access to life,” says Ken Oliver. Discussions like this can provide valuable insights and perspectives from various stakeholders, helping to inform more nuanced and effective approaches to criminal justice reform. 

Shifting one’s mindset from retribution to restoration, and emphasizing the value of fair chances and equity is at the heart of breaking the cycle of incarceration. As society continues to grapple with issues of justice and equity, discussions like these are crucial in paving the way for a more just and compassionate system for all.

Watch the full discussion here and learn more about the book Excessive Punishment: How the Justice System Creates Mass Incarceration here.