Penal Sanctioning in the United States: Explaining Cross-State Differences

Penal Sanctioning in the United States: Explaining Cross-State Differences

Penal Sanctioning in the United States: Explaining Cross-State Differences

Penal Sanctioning in the United States: Explaining Cross-State Differences

Synopsis

Laubepin investigates differences in the scope of penal sanctioning in the American states over a thirty-year period. Her analyses replicate and expand prior research examining the determinants of incarceration rates, and explore whether this theoretical framework can be usefully applied to back-end sentencing (parole revocation). She finds that states have responded to similar policy problems with solutions shaped by local social, political, economic and cultural conditions. Not only are these dynamics historically contingent, but they also play out differently at the front and back ends of the sentencing system. Unlike prior research, this study provides weak support for the influence of political factors, but points to the importance of practices of civic engagement instead, suggesting that penal sanctioning is driven by "top down" policies as well as "bottom up" democratic processes.

Excerpt

One of the defining characteristics of the late twentieth century social, political and cultural life in the United States has been an intense focus on the "crime problem" — urban violent crime, especially — and the unprecedented expansion of the penal system designed to contain it. Starting in the 1970s, prison populations grew sharply through the 1990s. By the end of 2007, U.S. prisons and jails held over 2.29 million men and women — a five-fold increase since 1972 and a rate six to ten times that of most comparable countries. All this growth took place in spite of declining crime rates. In 2007, the national incarceration rate reached 773 per 100,000 U.S. residents, up from 150 in 1972. New prison admissions contributed substantially to this increase, but so did parole revocations; in 1980 18 percent of prison populations were parolees returned to incarceration, but by 2000, this percentage had reached that of over a third (34 percent) (Travis 2007). This aspect of the mass incarceration phenomenon contributed to a dynamic variously referred to as the "revolving door" or the "catch and release (and catch again)" process. By all accounts, the breadth and size of this prison explosion have been nothing short of stunning, and a very substantial body of research has been devoted to exploring the causes, contours, and societal consequences of a phenomenon that has strained state and national correctional resources and has had a concentrated impact on minorities and the poor (Clear 2007; Jacobson 2006; Mauer and King 2007; Pager 2007; Western 2006).

A NEW PENOLOGICAL PARADIGM?

The prevailing and nearly uncontested narrative of the prison boom in the criminological literature tells the story of an extraordinarily punitive . . .

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