Punishment Politics: Gubernatorial Rhetoric, Political Conflict, and the Instrumental Explanation of Mass Incarceration in the American States
University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill
University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill
June 22, 2011
The tension created by the drop in violent crime and the sustained increase in mass incarceration in the American states represents a phenomenon of great theoretical and policy relevance. Previous accounts of that tension have centered on theories of group conflict and instrumentalism. We argue here that the use of aggressive political rhetoric by state governors to communicate the crime problem is an important correlate of mass incarceration boom. Using data derived from content analysis of state-of-the-state addresses of governors from all 50 states, we test this rhetoric theory and evaluate its implications alongside instrumental and conflict-based explanations of mass incarceration. We find that gubernatorial rhetoric has strong effect on mass incarceration but that this effect is moderated by the institutional power of the governor. Instrumentalism is not supported. The key implication of our findings is that mass incarceration is overwhelmingly a policy consequence of the punitive political rhetoric employed by state leaders to exploit the crime problem and mobilize political support.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 44
Keywords: mass incarceration, criminal punishment, gubernatorial rhetoric, instrumentalism, crime and punishment
Date posted: June 24, 2011