Mass Incarceration on Trial

A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America

The book that shows how a radical Supreme Court ruling on overcrowding in California prisons may mark the beginning of the end of mass incarceration in America

“An eloquent critique of the American prison system. . . . Simon’s accessible and powerful book deserves widespread attention.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Finalist, 2015 Media for a Just Society Award in the book category

In this “impassioned plea for human dignity” (Kirkus Reviews) Jonathan Simon—called “one of the outstanding criminologists of his generation” by Nikolas Rose of the London School of Economics—charts a surprising path to end mass incarceration in America. Using the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Plata on overcrowding in California prisons as his starting point, Simon suggests that incarcerating people on a “mass” scale simply cannot be accomplished in comportment with the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

In an argument that the Los Angeles Review of Books calls “unique,” Simon contends that because we cannot offer meaningful health care, mental health care, or safe and reasonable prison conditions when prisons are run at many times their maximum capacity, “mass incarceration is fundamentally incompatible with humane treatment.”

Todd Clear, former dean of Rutgers School of Criminal Justice, calls Mass Incarceration on Trial “highly readable, stunning”; Slate says the book “could mark the beginning of a new era in American jurisprudence”; and David Cole in the New York Review of Books calls Simon’s work a “sign of the new optimism about criminal justice reform.”


“Highly readable, stunning stuff. California is at the epicenter of a new American debate about prison policy, and Simon’s remarkable book places the state’s travails in national and historical context. I recommend it to anyone interested in the problem of prisons in America.”
—Todd Clear, author of The Punishment Imperative
“A powerful critique of California’s use of mass incarceration combined with an inspiring vision of a hopeful future created by landmark court decisions.”
—Jules Lobel, president, Center for Constitutional Rights
“Remarkable . . . in mapping a way forward, Simon introduces innovated legal devices to ensure that Mass Incarceration joins the nation’s past aberrations from our democracy.”
New York Law Journal
“Anyone who believes that the United States does not torture prisoners in domestic lock-up need only read Jonathan Simon’s book . . . to be disabused of this delusion.”
“A masterful job of assessing the qualitative shift in the court’s analysis on human rights concerns as they apply to our notorious prison system, the book points the way to a legal strategy premised on human dignity as a means of challenging mass incarceration.”
—Marc Mauer, executive director, The Sentencing Project, and author of Race to Incarcerate
“In this groundbreaking book Jonathan Simon has with his usual clarity shown a route out of America’s damaging and ineffective experiment in mass incarceration.”
—Baroness Vivien Stern, senior research fellow, International Centre for Prison Studies, and member of the House of Lords
“Simon fits the numbers into a frame that renders them disturbingly intelligible.”
Inside Higher Ed

News and Reviews

Los Angeles Review of Books

Read Jessica Pishko on Mass Incarceration on Trial at the Los Angeles Review of Books

Publishers Weekly

Publisher's Weekly reviews Mass Incarceration on Trial

Goodreads Reviews