During a period of mass incarceration from the 1970s through the early 2000s, one of the most striking changes in the justice system was the shift toward punitive crime policy. Changes in sentencing law carried stark consequences for racial inequality; Black individuals currently account for one-third of all prisoners. Despite punitive crime policies driving the prison boom, little research has examined why states adopted these new, tougher criminal laws.
In a new study, Scott Duxbury, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, considers whether racial threat drove states to adopt punitive sentencing laws. His findings reveal that punitive sentencing laws, which have been implicated in racial disparity in punishment during mass incarceration, were adopted in response to large, rather than growing, black populations.
Racial threat has ensconced itself as one of the dominant theoretical concepts for explaining the quantity and intensity of criminal punishments. The theory’s core prediction is that when minority groups pose a threat to the dominant group’s political and economic influence, often via large minority group size, dominant groups expand criminal law to suppress the minority group’s political and economic powers.
“By compiling a unique state-level dataset on 230 sentencing policy changes during mass incarceration and using data from 257,362 responses to 79 national surveys to construct new state-level measures of racial differences in punitive policy support, I evaluate whether criminal sentencing law is uniquely responsive to white public policy interests,” says Duxbury. His research, “Who Controls Criminal Law? Racial Threat and the Adoption of State Sentencing Law, 1975 to 2012,” appears in the February issue of the American Sociological Review.
These analyses support his three primary conclusions: (1) states adopted new sentencing policies as a nonlinear response to minority group size; (2) sentencing policies were adopted in response to white public, but not black public, support for punitive crime policy; and (3) minority group size and race-specific homicide victimization both indirectly affect sentencing policy by increasing white public punitive policy support.
“When we get down to the nuts and bolts of it, it’s really hard to tie down how racism plays out in current criminal justice, who is at fault for racial disparities in our prison system, and why those disparities have been so hard to combat,” says Duxbury. “This project was an attempt to reconcile some of the big-picture changes we’ve seen in mass incarceration, with a careful theoretical articulation of how and why race has shaped our current prison system.”
Results from Duxbury’s historical models support the threat explanation for sentencing policy adoption, revealing that sentencing laws are adopted more frequently in states with large black populations and punitive white populations. In addition, these findings provide weak support for the idea that race-specific homicide victimization contributes to sentencing policy.
“The results in this study carry implications for understanding the rise of racial disparity in mass incarceration,” says Duxbury. “These findings further elucidate how dominant groups deploy criminal law to maintain competitive advantage.”
About the American Sociological Association and the American Sociological Review
The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society. The American Sociological Review is the ASA's flagship journal.