The Journal of Politics


The Politics of Punishment: Evaluating Political Explanations of Incarceration Rates

Kevin B. Smitha1 c1

a1 University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Why have incarceration rates dramatically increased even as crime rates have remained stable or even declined? This is a question of considerable policy and theoretical relevance that currently has no satisfactory answer. I attempt to address this question by examining the key political explanations of prison populations and the unit of analysis and data limitation obstacles that make it difficult to conduct a comprehensive empirical analysis of these frameworks. I address these issues and undertake such an analysis using a pooled state-level analysis covering the years 1980–1995. Results suggest that the growth in prison populations has little to do with changes in crime rates or government response to citizen attitudes. Instead it is the most basic elements of the political environment (partisanship and elections) and the continuing legacy of racial social cleavages that explain why incarceration rates have increased.

(Online publication March 03 2003)

(Received October 15 2003)


c1 Kevin B. Smith is associate professor of political science, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, NE 68588-0328 (