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April 21, 2008

Interesting historical look at the length of prison sentencing

Recently appearing on SSRN is this interesting new piece providing a distinct window into a notable period in the history of prisons and prison sentences.  The piece is titled "The Origin of Long Prison Sentences in America: A Case Study of Pennsylvania, 1829-1865," and here is the abstract:

Penal historian David J. Rothman has described early American prison sentences as "very long" while French emissaries Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in 1833, described the American penitentiary system as "severe."  Though there exists a rich body of literature interpreting the birth of the prison, few scholars have written on the length of prison sentences that accompanied this birth. Using the length of prison sentences assigned to 1,727 convicts sentenced to the Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania in a dozen years falling between 1829 and 1865, this study investigates how long prison sentences were in Pennsylvania, what factors (race, age, gender, nationality, state of origin, recidivist status) affected sentence length, and how sentence length changed over time. Additionally, it compares Pennsylvania‘s sentence lengths to other American states to determine how representative Pennsylvania‘s prison sentences were of American prison sentences generally. Finally, it compares Pennsylvania‘s sentence lengths to those of Great Britain. While acknowledging the difficulty in comparing prison sentence lengths of different penal regimes in different states or countries, this study determines that Pennsylvania generally distributed shorter sentences than most other American states, but longer sentences than those in Great Britain.  These quantitative differences are then situated in the "American exceptionalism" debate regarding contemporary penality in the United States and abroad.

April 21, 2008 at 08:14 PM | Permalink

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