The Scale of Imprisonment in the United States: Twentieth Century Patterns and Twenty-First Century Prospects

By Zimring, Franklin E. | Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

The Scale of Imprisonment in the United States: Twentieth Century Patterns and Twenty-First Century Prospects


Zimring, Franklin E., Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology


I. INTRODUCTION

The prison has been far more important to criminal justice practice than to academic theory in the century examined by this Symposium. Imprisonment is the dominant severe criminal sanction worldwide and there is no evidence that its hegemony at the deep end of crime control will change. But the study of imprisonment has not been a major feature of criminal law theory at any time, while some aspects of prisons have commanded attention in the literature of criminology. So imprisonment has played a dominant role in American criminal justice but a minor role in the discourse about criminal law. The Harvard Law Review, for example, listed twenty-seven articles with "prison" or "imprisonment" in the title in one hundred years of publication beginning in 1910.

The interdisciplinary character of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology and its crime focus made it into the leading forum in law-related scholarship covering issues of prison operation and function. No fewer than 155 main articles were published with "prisons" or "imprisonment" in their titles in a century of publications, by far the largest concentration one would find in any scholarly journal closely linked to legal education. (1) And prisons played a prominent part in the scholarly portfolio of the Journal from the very beginning, with slightly more articles on prisons in the first half of its volumes than in the second. The range of prison-related topics covered from the beginning--including comparative and empirical work--was impressive.

But little of the first half-century of the Journal touched on the central issue in this analysis--what I shall call the scale of imprisonment. Zimring and Hawkins define the issue of scale as analysis of the appropriate "size of a society's prison enterprise in relation to other criminal sanctions and to the general population. How many prisoners? How many prisons? What criteria should govern decisions about how large a prison enterprise should be constructed and maintained?" (2)

Only one of the more than seventy articles with prison in its title that appeared in the Journal in its first half-century was principally concerned with rates of imprisonment: an article by Edwin Sutherland describing the decline in rates of imprisonment in England. (3) One important reason for the lack of scholarly attention to variation in the rate of imprisonment in the United States is that there was not a great deal of variation over time in the rate of imprisonment.

Indeed, the lack of dramatic variation in rates of imprisonment inspired Alfred Blumstein and Jacqueline Cohen to construct what they called "A Theory of the Stability of Punishment" (4) in the Journal in 1973, probably the most important and certainly the most ironically timed article on imprisonment in the Journal's first century. Blumstein and Cohen posit that levels of severe criminal punishment trend toward stability over time and they offered as evidence of this phenomenon the rather stable rates of imprisonment in the national aggregate over the years 1930-1970. Their Figure 2 is reproduced from Blumstein and Cohen as my Figure 1. The interpretation of this data was straightforward:

   It can be seen from Figure 2 that over that period the imprisonment
   rate was reasonably constant, having an average value of 110.2
   prisoners per 100,000 population and a standard deviation during
   that time ... of 8.9 prisoners per 100,000 population.... The
   stability of the time series is especially noteworthy when it is
   considered that the population of the United States increased by
   over 50 percent in the same period. (6)

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Twice more in the 1970s, Blumstein and his associates would produce data and analysis to augment their stability of punishment theory, (7) but then their entire theoretical structure was overtaken by events. From its low point in 1972, U. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Scale of Imprisonment in the United States: Twentieth Century Patterns and Twenty-First Century Prospects
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.