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April 25, 2022

"Did Mass Incarceration Leave Americans Feeling Less Afraid? A Multilevel Analysis of Cumulative Imprisonment and Individual Perceptions of Fear"

The title of this post is the title of this new research article now available online which is to be published in the journal Justice Quarterly and is authored by Andrea Corradi and Eric Baumer.  Here is its abstract:

Much of the political rhetoric that facilitated mass incarceration was predicated on the promise of reducing fear among the public.  Yet, it remains unclear whether the large increases in imprisonment experienced in many areas made residents feel less afraid.  We examine this issue by integrating geographic data on imprisonment with individual-level data on fear from the General Social Survey (GSS).  We find that people from states and counties with greater “cumulative imprisonment” rates were no less afraid than their counterparts from areas that imprisoned many fewer people.  These findings hold for the public overall and for non-Latino whites and members of the working and middle classes, who frequently were target audiences for political rhetoric linking mass incarceration era policies to fear reduction.  Our study supports growing calls to decouple crime and criminal justice policy from politics and electoral cycles, and to develop evidence-based punishment approaches organized around transparent normative principles.

April 25, 2022 at 03:52 PM | Permalink


The important question, of course, is not whether people felt less afraid, but whether there was in fact less to fear. The answer to that question is yes. As the prison population grew steadily from 1990 to 2010, crime, including violent crime, plummeted.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 25, 2022 5:30:10 PM

This paper only solidifies the failure of mass incarceration. Crime has dropped for several decades not because of mass incarceration, but several factors. Aging population, increased wages, less exposure to lead, technology, etc.

Posted by: anon | Apr 26, 2022 4:18:12 PM

anon --

"Mass incarceration" has neither failed nor succeeded, because it's never been tried. As of now, 99.5% of the population is not incarcerated. When a sliver of 1% is behind bars, you might have many things, but "mass" incarceration is not one of them. It's just a buzzphrase used by advocates to smear the United States.

The wonderful decrease in crime that started after 1991 stopped in 2014. The last seven or eight years have not been a pretty picture, especially for murder and drug overdose deaths, which exceeded 100,000 for the first time ever last year.

An increase in incarceration helped bring down crime because of its incapacitating effects. As you point out, it was not the only reason. The aging of the Baby Boomers was important, yes, as was massively increased private surveillance and security. Also adding to the crime decrease was the hiring of more police and more pro-active and computer assisted policing.

P.S. Wages increased substantially for a full 30 years, 1960-1990 -- and crime along with them. By contrast, during the Great Recession, roughly 2007 - 2009, wages decreased and so did crime.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 26, 2022 8:23:30 PM

@Bill Otis: There might be a better phrase for the United States’ tendency to lock up a higher percentage of its population than most other nations. I assume you are not disputing that this is true, regardless of the label used to describe it.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Apr 27, 2022 8:22:57 AM

Marc Shepherd --

International comparisons are unreliable because you have an apples and oranges problem to say the least. Different countries have different cultures, histories, law, legal traditions, demographics, urban v. rural population distribution, overall wealth, and more.

Words count. That's precisely why my opponents use the phrase "mass incarceration" -- to make it sound as if the USA has a huge chunk of its people behind bars. But that is false. One half of one percent is not a huge chunk of anything and it's not "mass" anything.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 27, 2022 8:55:22 AM

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