Toward Refining the Criminology of Mass Incarceration: Group-Based Trajectories of U.S. States, 1977–2010

AuthorElizabeth K. Brown
Date01 March 2020
Published date01 March 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Toward Refining the Criminology
of Mass Incarceration:
Group-Based Trajectories of
U.S. States, 1977–2010
Elizabeth K. Brown
The development of mass incarceration in the United States has occurred unevenly across American
states. Prior time series, fixed effect, and case study research have failed to fully illuminate the
determinants of incarceration rate change in states with varying patterns of growth. As a supplement
to previously utilized approaches, the present research uses group-based trajectory modeling to
consider patterns of incarceration rate growth across 48 U.S. states in relation to crime, political,
structural, and institutional variables. In order to account for periodicity, group-based trajectory
models of state incarceration rates are estimated separately for 1977–1990, 1990–2000, and 2000–
2010. Findings suggest that political and economic factors vary in their relationships to incarceration
growth over time and that, controlling for crime, the percentage of young Black males in state
populations was the most consistent predictor of incarceration rate growth, particularly among high
incarcerating states from 2000 to 2010. The implications of these findings for ‘‘the criminology of
mass incarceration’’ are considered.
incarceration, states, punishment, mass incarceration, trajectories
While the development of mass incarceration has been one of the most notable and dramatic trends
in U.S. criminal justice in the last 40 years and has given rise to the ‘‘criminology of mass incarcera-
tion’’ (Lynch, 2011), the dynamics of incarceration rate growth have not been experienced uni-
formly across states (Barker, 2009; Bosworth, 2010). Indeed, a disaggregated view of what has been
happening in states reveals a wide range of patterns in incarceration rates. Some states have seen
rapid increases since the 1970s with recent downturns, others have experienced relatively modest
Department of Sociology, University of Massachusetts Boston, Boston, MA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Elizabeth K. Brown, Department of Sociology, University of Massachusetts Boston, 100 Morrissey Boulevard, Boston, MA
02125, USA.
Criminal Justice Review
2020, Vol. 45(1) 45-63
ª2016 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016815627859
increases and a gradual leveling off, and still others have experienced consistent increases in
incarceration rates over time (Pfaff, 2008, p. 551; Stucky, Heimer, & Lang, 2005, p. 235).
different patterns of incarceration rates across states have created increasing variation in rates over
time (the standard deviation of incarceration rates across states tripled from 53 in 1977 to 146 in
Empirical research on state-level incarceration has utilized time-series analysis (Jacobs & Car-
michael, 2001; Stemen & Rengifo, 2011), fixed effect regress ion models (Campbell, Vogel, &
Williams, 2015; Travis, Western, & Redburn, 2014), and case studies of particular states (Barker,
2009; Campbell & Schoenfeld, 2013; Lynch, 2009; Miller, 2008). Overall, prior time series analyses
have suggested that variables such as violent crime rates, drug arrests, and Republican political
power, among others, are positively related to growth in incarceration rates while variables such as
determinate sentencing policies and more generous welfare spending are negatively related to state
incarceration rates (Jacobs & Carmichael, 2001; Stemen, Rengifo, & Wilson, 2005; Stucky et al.,
2005). A recent fixed effects analysis of determinants of incarceration rates in 1970, 1980, 1990,
2000, and 2010, built upon recent case study research that inductively identified distinct periods in
the development of mass incarceration (Campbell & Schoenfeld, 2013), found evidence for peri-
odicity and that partisanship, size of the Black population, and violent crime rates were determinants
of state-level incarceration up until 2000, but that in 2010, only the size of the Black population
remains predictive of incarceration rates (Campbell et al., 2015).
Unfortunately, both time-series and fixed effect analyses produce results that aggregate states
together, obscuring potentially important differences in the determinants of incarceration rate
change across states with widely varying patterns of incarceration rates over time. For example,
Texas experienced relatively moderate and stable incarceration rates through the 1980s (at approx-
imately 200 per 100,000 persons). It was not until the 1990s that rates of incarceration began rising
dramatically after which time rates in Texas began slowly declining. Even with periodicity taken
into account, both time-series and fixed effect approaches obscure those patterns of incarceration
change over time.
Considering determinants of incarceration rates across groups of states aggregated according to
their variable patterns of incarceration rate change can illuminate forces that have contributed to
patterns of dramatic incarceration growth across some states while others have experienced lower
rates and growth. Ultimately, knowing about patterns of incarceration rate growth can inform both
grounded discussions of differential avenues to mass incarceration and opportunities for and barriers
to reducing reliance on incarceration. Using group-based trajectory modeling, this research con-
siders relationships between demographic, economic, political, and policy-specific factors and
incarceration rates for states grouped together according to their pattern of incarceration rate change
in three time periods identified by prior research (Campbell & Schoenfeld, 2013; Campbell et al.,
2015) as being developmentally distinct: from 1977 to 1990, from 1990 to 2000, and from 2000 to
Toward Refining ‘‘The Criminology of Mass Incarceration’
The rise of incarceration rates across states beginning in the mid-1970s has been linked to sentencing
and correctional policy shifts assoc iated with politicization and racializ ation of crime rhetoric,
concern about rising crime rates, shifting social mores, and a backlash against perceived liberalism
both in the courts and in social life in the 1960s (Beckett, 1997; Clear & Frost, 2014; Garland, 2001).
Theoretically, research on state-level incarceration has drawn heavily on narratives about the broad
sociopolitical and cultural forces driving the rise of ‘‘mass incarceration’’ (Garland, 2001; Simon,
2007; Tonry, 2009). These narratives, taken together, have been described as the criminology of
mass incarceration (Lynch, 2011, p. 674).
46 Criminal Justice Review 45(1)

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