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Imprisonment is the punishment of choice in American jurisdictions. In everyday life, the modes of human suffering are numerous and diverse: when we lose our property, we experience need; when we are denounced by those whose opinions we respect, we feel shame; when our bodies are tormented, we suffer physical pain. But for those who commit serious criminal offenses, the law strongly prefers one form of suffering-the deprivation of liberty-to the near exclusion of all others. Some alternatives to imprisonment, such as corporal punishment, are barely conceivable. Others, including fines and community service, do exist but are used sparingly and with great reluctance.

The singularity of American criminal punishments has been widely lamented. Imprisonment is harsh and degrading for offenders and extraordinarily expensive for society. Nor is there any evidence that imprisonment is more effective than its rivals in deterring various crimes. For these reasons, theorists of widely divergent orientations-from economics-minded conservatives to reform-minded civil libertarians-are united in their support for alternative sanctions.

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