Politics, Prisons, and Law Enforcement: An Examination of the Emergence of “Law and Order” Politics in Texas

Published date01 September 2011
Date01 September 2011
Politics, Prisons, and Law Enforcement:
An Examination of the Emergence of
“Law and Order” Politics in Texas
Michael C. Campbell
This article examines the rise of “law and order” politics in Texas, providing
an in-depth archival case study of changes in prison policy in a Southern state
during the pivotal period when many U.S. states turned to mass incarceration.
It brings attention to the important role an insurgent Republican governor
and law enforcement officials played in shaping crime policy. Law enforce-
ment’s role is considered within a broader examination of political strategy
during a period of intense socioeconomic volatility. The findings suggest that
within particular political contexts, especially those with low levels of political
participation, law enforcement agents might play a key role in shaping
Between 1988 and 1999 the number of inmates in Texas prisons
quadrupled from around 40,000 to more than 160,000, an aston-
ishing spike that established Texas as one of the world’s most
punitive polities, with a prison population nearly equivalent to that
of Western Europe (Walmsley 2003). Even though the prison popu-
lation has leveled off, modestly declining in recent years, no serious
decline seems likely, despite a precipitous drop in crime rates and
serious budgetary challenges. This frenetic expansion in imprison-
ment was the byproduct of crime and punishment’s emergence as
the primary political issue in state politics during the 1980s. Crime
politics, which includes the rhetorical and substantive focus on
crime, punishment, and the policies associated with their regula-
tion, emerged during a period of profound socioeconomic change,
and was an important factor in the complete realignment of parti-
san power in which Republicans usurped Democrats as the state’s
most powerful political party. This article analyzes the ascent of
This research would not have been possible without funding by Grant 0752153 from the
National Science Foundation. As well as support from the University of California, Irvine’s
Chancellor’s Club, which greatly facilitated the project’s progress and I am grateful to both
for their financial support. I would like to thank Valerie Jenness and the anonymous
reviewers and editors for kindly reading previous drafts and providing the insightful
comments that made the article better. My deepest thanks goes to Kitty Calavita, whose
diligence, intellectual precision, mentorship, and encouragement helped me refine the
article. Please direct correspondence to Michael C. Campbell, Department of Sociology,
Northern Illinois University, Dekalb, IL 60115; e-mail: mcampbell7@niu.edu.
Law & Society Review, Volume 45, Number 3 (2011)
© 2011 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
crime and punishment in Texas’s political sphere, attempting to
tease out which factors were most important in explaining how and
why crime emerged as such a salient political issue when it did.
This article is among the first to examine the rise of mass
incarceration in a southern state through in-depth archival
research, and it joins a growing set of scholarship that has recently
delved more deeply into the state-level legal and political processes
associated with prison expansion (Barker 2009; Gilmore 2007;
Lynch 2010; Miller 2008; Page 2011; Perkinson 2010; Schoenfeld
2010). My work uses archival research methods to unearth how
sometimes overlooked state-level political processes contributed
to prison expansion. As we shall see, “law and order” politicians
enjoyed certain strategic advantages in Texas, including the politi-
cal activism of law enforcement groups generally and prosecutors
in particular. Law enforcement groups played an important role in
shaping crime legislation and stirring support for policies that
prioritized prisons and harsher punishments. They were particu-
larly important in Texas because the state’s political culture and
institutional structure skewed the political playing field to their
advantage. As Texas entered a period of intense economic and
demographic volatility that potentially threatened the state’s tradi-
tional power relations, federal litigation forced Texas lawmakers to
dismantle their plantation-style prisons. They did so, but recon-
structed a new penal regime consistent with the state’s historical
tradition of harsh punishment, one that today cages an astounding
proportion of the state’s minority population.
Below I outline some of the key scholarship on incarceration
and changes in punishment in the United States, with a particular
focus on recent state-level scholarship. Then I explain how this case
study was accomplished, and the nature of the data collected and
analysis conducted. This is followed by a brief background section
outlining some of the important factors that shaped the status of
prisons in Texas by the late 1970s along with an historical narrative
of key political developments associated with changes in prison
policy in Texas; these focus particularly on key explanatory factors
derived from previous research. Finally, I discuss how the Texas
case furthers our understanding of how and why so many states
turned to mass incarceration in the latter half of the twentieth
Scholars have provided an increasingly complex picture of
the socioeconomic and political forces that have contributed to
the increase in mass incarcerationin the United States. Early
632 Politics, Prisons, and Law Enforcement
explanations largely drew on national level data and examples
from states to explain increasingly punitive crime control policies.
Many of these theories emphasized macro-level factors fundamen-
tal to late modern American society (Garland 1990, 2001; Tonry
2004; Wacquant 2001). Most prominent among them is David
Garland’s (2001) account that situates harsher crime control poli-
cies as a cultural response to the social and economic changes
associated with late modern societies; anxieties stirred by weaker
social bonds and economic uncertainty generate stronger modes
of social control. Others have explained the rise of mass incar-
ceration less as the product of fundamental socioeconomic
changes, and more as the product of American politics. Katherine
Beckett and Theodore Sasson (2000) argued that political strategy
and media attention were intertwined with racial politics in gen-
erating undue focus on crime control. Similarly, Jonathan Simon
(2007) argues that the politics of fear have fundamentally
reshaped the structure of government in ways that privilege
executive power—and the power of the executive branch—in
ways that threaten the fundamental inclusiveness upon which
democratic government rests.
These accounts necessarily relied on selective data from across
the U.S. because of the lack of sufficient state and regional studies.
Although crime policy is undoubtedly shaped by national level
trends, most of the decisions leading to harsher punishment and
prison expansion were made by state legislatures. A new wave of
research has built a more robust empirical foundation focused on
state-level processes associated with punishment. These case studies
have reaffirmed the need to better understand how political
dynamics facilitated the implementation of more punitive crime
policies (Barker 2009; Gilmore 2007; Lynch 2010; Miller 2008;
Page 2011; Schoenfeld 2010). These accounts have outlined the
importance of political institutions in shaping political integration
and crime policies (Barker 2009), how federalism privileges certain
groups (Miller 2008), and the disproportionate influence of certain
interest groups in the crime policy arena (Gottschalk 2006; Miller
2008; Page 2011).
State-level research has helped illuminate how political culture
and the historical forces that have shaped it contributed to the rise
of mass incarceration in certain states, especially in the South and
Southwest. Robert Perkinson’s (2010) account of changes in Texas’s
penal system notes the importance of state structure and political
culture, drawing explicit links between political arrangements and
Texas’s history of racial conflict. He argues that Texas fiercely
resisted northern ideas and methods of punishment throughout its
history, and that punishment was always harsh and racially aligned.
Mona Lynch’s (2010) findings from Arizona echo Perkinson’s
Campbell 633

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