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Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s tragic novel, was published over 160 years ago and yet it continues to capture imaginations and sympathies worldwide. It was made into an award-winning film over a decade ago. But before that, Les Misérables was one of the most popular Broadway musicals ever produced, having been viewed by over sixty million people, even beyond the viewership of other popular renditions in film and television. Despite (or perhaps because of) its heartbreaking themes, audiences sympathize with the main characters’ quest for redemption. How easy, in the story, to see the struggles and barriers Jean Valjean encounters—and to cheer him on when fleeing a draconian system that failed to acknowledge his moral transformation. ...

This Article examines the parole (and to a lesser extent, sentencing) policies in the modern U.S. in comparison with the laws that drive the plot of Victor Hugo’s classic tale. The similarities are striking. What makes us weep for Jean Valjean but legislate like Javert? After we have dried our tears, how can we find our way from the practically (and morally) limited retributive practices into more just (and more pragmatically successful) policies? If we look closely, there are other models of systems that are both practically and fiscally effective—while fostering the extrajudicial transformations we see in Les Misérables.