Why is American punishment so cruel? While in continental Europe great efforts are made to guarantee that prisoners are treated humanely, in America sentences have gotten longer and rehabilitation programs have fallen by the wayside. Western Europe attempts to prepare its criminals for life after prison, whereas many American prisons today leave their inhabitants reduced and debased. In the last quarter of a century, Europe has worked to ensure that the baser human inclination toward vengeance is not reflected by state policy, yet America has shown a systemic drive toward ever increasing levels of harshness in its criminal policies. Why is America so short on mercy? In this deeply researched, comparative work, James Q. Whitman reaches back to the 17th and 18th centuries to trace how and why American and European practices came to diverge. Eschewing the usual historical imprisonment narratives, Whitman focuses instead on intriguing differences in the development of punishment in the age of Western democracy. European traditions of social hierarchy and state power, so consciously rejected by the American colonies, nevertheless supported a more merciful and dignified treatment of offenders. The hierarchical class system on the continent kept alive a tradition of less-degrading "high-status" punishments that eventually became applied across the board in Europe. The distinctly American, draconian regime, on the other hand, grows, Whitman argues, out of America's longstanding distrust of state power and its peculiar, broad-brush sense of egalitarianism. Low-status punishments were evenly meted out to all offenders, regardless of class or standing. America's unrelentingly harsh treatment of transgressors--this "equal opportunity degradation"-- is, in a very real sense, the dark side of the nation's much vaunted individualism. A sobering look at the growing rift between the United States and Europe, Harsh Justice exposes the deep cultural roots of America's degrading punishment practices.