Crime and Punishment in America

Crime and Punishment in America, an eight-hour PBS series, is the first documentary ever to tell the story of criminal justice — and injustice — in America from the colonial era to today. Created by a diverse team led by award winning filmmaker Lynn Novick, this series will explore 400 years of American history through a multi-layered, human-centered narrative, illuminating both the promise embedded in America’s foundational ideals of equality, justice, and freedom, and the human cost of our nation’s failure to live up to those ideals.

This series will go far beyond the history of prisons and policing in America to ask fundamental questions about justice itself: Who should make the laws that determine which acts are crimes? What causes crime, and what is the most effective way for a community to respond? What does a “criminal” look like? What is the purpose of incarceration — physical and psychological punishment, confinement, social control, deterrence, retribution, rehabilitation, redemption?

In every episode we will get to know individual men and women incarcerated in America’s prisons, reformatories, and penitentiaries; prison wardens, police chiefs, judges and prosecutors; along with public defenders and civil rights attorneys, journalists and reformers who, in every generation, have endeavored to expose injustice in the hope of giving rise to a more just and humane system. The series will trace the development and impact of some of the nation’s most famous, and most infamous, penal institutions; reveal the fairness, or lack of it, in who is arrested, who is prosecuted, and who walks free; reveal the intimate and enduring connections between the institution of slavery, the re-imposition of white supremacy after the Civil War, and the structure, design and administration of American punishment. Through it all, Crime and Punishment in America will provide historical context and insights into two interconnected, essential questions: How did the United States become the most punitive nation on earth, with the largest prison population? And why are roughly six out of ten of those behind bars in America black and brown?

In this time of profound reckoning, as we struggle to come to terms with wrenching, challenging, and essential truths about our history, this documentary could not be more relevant and timely.

Crime and Punishment in America will be executive produced by award-winning filmmakers Ken Burns and Sam Pollard. This 8-hour series is a production of Skiff Mountain Films in association with WETA and Florentine Films, and will air on PBS in 2026.

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