Punishment Politics: Gubernatorial Rhetoric, Political Conflict, and the Instrumental Explanation of Mass Incarceration in the American States

44 Pages Posted: 24 Jun 2011  

Isaac Unah

University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill

Elizabeth Coggins

University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill

Date Written: June 22, 2011

Abstract

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.

Keywords: mass incarceration, criminal punishment, gubernatorial rhetoric, instrumentalism, crime and punishment

Suggested Citation

Unah, Isaac and Coggins, Elizabeth, Punishment Politics: Gubernatorial Rhetoric, Political Conflict, and the Instrumental Explanation of Mass Incarceration in the American States (June 22, 2011). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1870385 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1870385

Isaac Unah (Contact Author)

University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill ( email )

361 Hamilton Hall
CB#3265
Chapel Hill, NC 27599
United States

Elizabeth Coggins

University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill ( email )

102 Ridge Road
Chapel Hill, NC NC 27514
United States

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