Inter-Party Competition, Public Electoral Pressure, and Democratic Strength: Refining Political Explanations of Incarceration Trends in the U.S., 1980 – 2010

Published date01 June 2023
Date01 June 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Inter-Party Competition,
Public Electoral Pressure,
and Democratic Strength:
Ref‌ining Political Explanations
of Incarceration Trends in the
U.S., 1980 2010
Pavel V. Vasiliev
The purpose of this research is to advance the politics of mass imprisonment literature by testing
and specifying the macro-explanations of the state-level incarceration change in the United States
(U.S.) between 1980 and 2010. Specif‌ically, I account for mechanisms of inter-party competition
and public electoral pressure neglected in prior research. To accomplish this goal, I utilize random
coeff‌icient models designed to control for repeated annual measures of state-level data that over-
whelm traditional analytic techniques. Findings suggest that violent crime, partisan aff‌iliation of state
legislators and governors, probation rates, citizen ideology, marijuana decriminalization, and
recidivist-focused laws are associated with incarceration as hypothesized, as well as the African
American presence net of crime and socioeconomic disadvantage. Contributing to the theoretical
debates on democracy and punishment, this paper demonstrates that inter-party competition and
public electoral pressure amplify incarceration in the context of Democratic Party dominance,
where no liberalizing effects of competition were found. I conclude that legal and extralegal factors
are associated with incarceration and suggest that the public did not oppose criminal jus tice expan-
sion via democratic feedback mechanisms, so both penal populism (Pratt, 2008) and popular puni-
tivism (Campbell et al., 2017) are valid interpretations of imprisonment politics during the analyzed
incarceration, crime policy, race, penal populism
Department of Sociology and Criminology, Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, KY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Pavel V. Vasiliev, Department of Sociology and Criminology, Western Kentucky University, 1906 College Heights Blvd,
Bowling Green, KY 42101-1057, USA.
Criminal Justice Review
2023, Vol. 48(2) 168-186
© 2021 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/07340168211061152
The magnitude of current U.S. incarceration is a global anomaly, as 21% of the worlds inmates are
held in American prisons and jails as of 2016 while only 5% of the planets population resides in the
country (Carson, 2020; Walmsley, 2015; Zeng, 2018). Yet, for the four decades between 1930 and
1970, U.S. incarceration rates had been relatively invariant and low, averaging at 110.2 inmates per
100,000 (Zimring, 2010), similar to European countries (Lacey, 2008). American prison growth,
which more than quadrupled the total incarceration rate, began in 1973 and lasted almost four
decades until its deceleration was brought about by the recession of 2007 (Brown, 2013). Seen on
the subnational level, the growth is even more striking, as 11 U.S. states had incarceration rates
below 70 per 100,000 as late as 1980, which is reminiscent of the Nordic penal exceptionalism
(Pratt & Eriksson, 2013), while only four U.S. states had incarceration rates below 200 per
100,000 in 2010. For instance, North Dakota and Louisiana grew from 28 and 211 inmates per
100,000 in 1980 to 220 and 868 inmates in 2010, respectively. This growth is not over yet, with
12 states showing an increase in imprisonment between 2007 and 2018 (Bureau of Justice
Statistics, 2017; Carson, 2020). Although most states no longer grow, we are facing incarceration
levels beyond the historical norm for the U.S. as a nation.
Quantitative research, with some exceptions (Campbell et al., 2015; Phelps & Pager, 2016;
Vasiliev, 2013), has employed methods not optimal for analysis of change at the state level and
has neglected the specif‌ic mechanisms whereby structural factors shape the penal outcomes yielding
broad, underdetermined theories (see Garland, 2018). The present paper addresses these methodolog-
ical and theoretical limitations by replicating and ref‌ining Smiths (2004) study of incarceration in the
U.S. states. First, I utilize random coeff‌icient models, which produce accurate standard errors when
analyzing repeated annual measures of state-level data that challenge the ordinary least squares
(OLS) regression (Luke, 2004) used in the replicated study. Second, to extend prior work that
solely focused on electoral competition (Stucky et al., 2005), I analyze both aspects of the competi-
tion including the measure of inter-party rivalry for, and control of, the state government utilizing the
fol|ded Ranney (1976) index, along with the Holbrook and Van Dunk (1993) index of electoral com-
petition, which is more appropriate for public pressure and policy outcome hypotheses. Third, to
extend the work on historical contingency of the incarceration predictors, I examine whether the
competition effects changed over time using detailed annual rather than decennial data (Campbell
et al., 2015). The purpose of this study is to test and specify political explanations of incarceration
change using an analytic technique appropriate for state-level inquiry while focusing on democratic
feedback mechanisms of inter-party competition and voter pressure in order to advance criminology
beyond broad functionalist theories (Garland, 2018) and contribute to penal populism (Jennings
et al., 2017; Pratt, 2008) literature. Future developments in the f‌ield might be shaped by new pro-
cesses and actors, but research emphasizes continuities in penal determinants and innovations
(Amidon, 2018; Green, 2015; Sliva, 2016); hence, the signif‌icance of this study.
The Partisan Use of the Incarceration Argument:
Elite Rivalry and Constituency Pressure
The literature suggests that incarceration is a social policy championed by the Republican Party since
1964, when Senator Goldwater programmatically proclaimed that moderation in pursuit of justice is
no virtue(Schneider, 2003, p. 245; Tonry, 2009). Republican politicians may favor incarceration as
it is consistent with their agenda of individual responsibility for street criminals, or it can be an
attempt to gain support of less-aff‌luent status-anxious voters unsettled by the extension of voting
rights to previously disenfranchised African Americans (Beckett & Godoy, 2008; Costelloe et al.,
2009; Finckenauer, 1978; Jacobs & Jackson, 2010). An analysis of the salience of crime in the
Vasiliev 169

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT