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'Smart on Crime': How a Shift in Political Attention is Changing Penal Policy in America

34 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2011 Last revised: 29 Aug 2011

Garrick Percival

affiliation not provided to SSRN

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Date Written: 2011


After decades of witnessing increasingly punitive sanctions to combat crime, U.S. penal policy has begun to reverse itself in the 2000s. Policy is trending toward “softer” alternatives that reduce criminal penalties, invest in human capital, and rely less on the prison as the primary mode of punishment. I ask how this unlikely set penal of policy reversals has managed to reach the governing agenda and become successfully adopted when policymakers for the most of the previous decades had rejected softer reform alternatives because of a pervasive fear of being labeled soft on crime. Guided by theories of agenda setting this research develops a politically-centered explanation, placing emphasis on the emergence of what I call the “smart on crime” frame of American penology and policymaking. As discussed, smart on crime involves a shift in collective attention within two major dimensions of the crime issue. It moves the debate away from an emotionally-based understanding of crime that views punitiveness and the prison as essential crime fighting instruments, to a new understanding that emphasize the failings of the carceral boom on one hand, and on the other hand, the efficacy and moral justness of softer data-driven prison alternatives.

Suggested Citation

Percival, Garrick, 'Smart on Crime': How a Shift in Political Attention is Changing Penal Policy in America (2011). APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN:

Garrick Percival (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

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