The foremost world power holds a record that it's not close to giving up yet: It holds 25 percent of all prisoners on the planet behind bars. With its overpopulated prisons, whose cost exceeds $80 billion per year, the United States is paying the price for a repressive crime policy that has gone astray.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans serve very harsh sentences that flout the basic principle of proportionality. Since criminologists of the Robert Martinson era — for whom rehabilitating criminals is just a waste of time — became prevalent in the 1970s, the number of prisoners in the country's prisons quadrupled. The most affected populations are African-American and Hispanic minorities, who represent more than half of all incarcerations. They are also the ones who are poorest and suffer the most from an incomplete education.

This kind of policy toward crime goes against what it's supposed to uphold: putting criminals back on the right track and if possible, rehabilitating them within society. However, a criminal system that loses sight of such an objective is not thinking straight. The concept of redemption, an integral part of the "American dream," seems to be limited to those who have failed on the economic playing field. Two reports that the National Research Council and Brookings Institution published this week paint a graver picture of the situation. The two institutions note that while crime has decreased by half since the 1990s, it’s not because of a careless policy toward crime. On the contrary, they deem that the social cost of very harsh prison sentences by far exceeds its benefits in terms of social cohesion and fighting crime.

Nonetheless, hope for change seems to be rising. A national consensus is forming to change counterproductive laws, adapt sentences to the gravity of the crime, and find rehabilitation solutions worthy of their name.