Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

State and County Incarceration Rates: The Direct and Indirect Effects of Race and Inequality

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

State and County Incarceration Rates: The Direct and Indirect Effects of Race and Inequality

Article excerpt



Within the last decade there has been a tremendous increase in the level of incarceration in the United States. Between 1988 and 1993, the imprisonment rate (number of adults incarcerated per 100,000 civilian adult population) increased from 244 (BJS, 1989) to 351 (BJS, 1994a) -- an increase of 44%. This increase far exceeded the increase in crime. According to the FBI (Uniform Crime Reports, 1989 and 1994) the Index Crime Rate(1) increased by two percent during the same period. Other researchers also have reported that in the United States during the 1980s, the increases in crime lagged far behind the increases in imprisonment rates.(2) Thus, the increase in the level of crime alone is insufficient to explain the increase in imprisonment.

The impact of race and income inequality on punishment levels is supported by competing sociological theories. Durkheimian theory holds that racial discrimination and income inequality indirectly affect imprisonment through crime. This is grounded on the assumption that racial discrimination and/or lower socio-economic status (both of which reduce legitimate economic opportunities) leads to criminal activity which, in turn, leads to imprisonment. In contrast, conflict theory suggests that these variables have both direct and indirect effects. That is, racial composition and income inequality will have a significant effect on imprisonment when controlling for crime. This latter effect is attributed to the response of the economically and politically powerful to the real or perceived threat posed by culturally dissimilar groups (cultural conflict theory). The present study analyzes the existence and magnitudes of the direct and indirect effects of race and income inequality on the level of imprisonment.


Prior Research

Despite decades of research, the impact that extra-legal variables such as race and income inequality have on the imprisonment rate remains unclear. Dominant sociological theories offer conflicting explanations of imprisonment. The first, which can be described as the consensus perspective, holds that imprisonment is a direct response to crime. Incarceration, therefore, should be greatest in areas where crime is the greatest (Arvanites, 1993; Carroll and Doubet, 1983; Colvin, 1990; Joubert, et al., 1981; Michalowski and Pearson, 1990).

Other sociological theories suggest that when controlling for the level of serious crime, incarceration rates are directly affected by extra-legal factors. The Cultural Conflict and Neo-Marxist theories suggest that the existing social structure produces a culturally dissimilar class of individuals (viz., the impoverished, the unemployed and the oppressed minorities) who pose a threat, whether real or perceived, to the interests of the economically and politically powerful (Quinney, 1977; Spitzer, 1975; Turk, 1969). While the term "interests" has never been clearly defined (Liska, 1987), it generally is meant to refer to those aspects of the current economic and political order that are disproportionately beneficial to economically or politically powerful groups in society. From this perspective, imprisonment is a function of economic inequality as well as of crime. This is grounded on the assumption that the poor represent a threat to the property and business interests of the economically elite.

The Cultural Conflict Theory

As with the economically deprived, racial minorities often have been viewed as threatening to the white majority. Swigert and Farrell (1976) reported that whites and social control authorities often view nonwhites as being more involved in crime. The presence of nonwhites is viewed as an indicator of a crime problem (Lizotte and Bordua, 1980) and the fear of crime is positively related to the presence of nonwhites (Liska, et al., 1982). As a result, cultural conflict theorists argue that law enforcement officials are more likely to incarcerate minorities than others. …

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