Partitioning the Growth in State Prison Populations, 1983-2000: An Analysis of Ten States

Don Stemen, The Vera Institute of Justice

The indeterminate sentencing structures that dominated state systems through the 1970s fragmented over the last twenty-five years. These manifold changes in state-level sentencing policies accompanied equally dramatic changes in national incarceration rates, leading many criminologist to conclude that increases in prison populations were directly attributable to changes in sentencing policies. However, while all states experienced growth in prison populations over the last twenty-five years, national figures hide the variation in policies and rates of growth across states.

Previous research on state differences in incarceration focused primarily on identifying state characteristics (e.g. racial composition, urbanization) associated with variation in imprisonment. However, these studies tend to consider a state's incarceration rate in isolation from the rest of its criminal justice system. As such, previous work fails to view changes in incarceration rates as the result of the combined effects of changes in crime rates, arrest rates, or sentencing decisions (commitments to prison and sentence lengths). By partitioning the criminal justice system into stages and examining growth within each partition, the relative contribution of each stage to the growth in a state's incarceration rate can be determined.

This paper analyzes the factors affecting variation in growth of state incarceration rates between 1983 and 2000, isolating the contribution of changes in crime rates, arrest rates, commitments to prison, and sentence lengths. The paper focuses on ten states and examines how growth differs across crime types and across states during the period, ultimately evaluating the affects of changes in sentencing decisions and policies on crime-specific and overall incarceration rates.

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Updated 05/20/2006