Race, Drugs and Politics: Social Construction of a Prison Nation

Connie Stivers Ireland, California State University, Long Beach

U.S. imprisonment has quadrupled since 1980, with California leading the pace. Previous research suggests legislation has not increased probability/length of imprisonment while reducing violent/serious crime. This research improves upon previous limitations to examine crime, imprisonment, and parole outcomes in California from 1983-1999, modeling changes in imprisonment to examine a conceptual hypothesis: the social construction of crime plays a larger role in predicting imprisonment than crime factors.

This study employs probability analysis and OLS/logistic regression of secondary data to examine: 1) locus of punitiveness; 2) overall punitiveness; 3) imposed prison time; 4) offender characteristics; 5) time served/percent imposed time served; and 6) recidivism. While small, the probability of imprisonment in California has tripled since 1983. The overall "value" of offenses (prison days imposed per reported index crime) has risen, however the "value" of drug offenses exceeds violent offenses. Young, male, African American offenders convicted of drug offenses in Southern California received the longest sentences, served more time and had less successful parole outcomes than others, controlling for age, gender, record, year and jurisdiction. Given the current allocation of system resources, this research suggests that California has traded harsher treatment for violent offenders in exchange for increased imprisonment for minority drug offenders.

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Updated 05/20/2006