Modeling Punitiveness: Assessing State-Level Variations in Punishment

Natasha A. Frost, Criminology & Public Policy

In this paper, I assess the punitiveness of the firty states in several ways to determine whether differnet ways of modeling punitiveness produce different rankings. The most obvious way of comparing the relative punitiveness of the states is to use their incarceration rates per 100,000 residents (while controlling for their crime rates). The incarceration rate however takes into account only the quantity of punishment, and then only in terms of numbers incarcerated, with no measure of the quality of punishmnent. State-level variations in punitiveness can also be assessed by measuring what the law allows in each of the states (e.g. the sentences allowed for a given crimne by statute). Finally, punitiveness could be measured as the distance between what the law allows in theory (sentencing guidelines) and what the state does in practice (time served), or in other words what the state does in relation to what it could do.

If the various ways of measuring punitiveness produce significantly different rankings, it would seem that one would need to theoretically justify the use of one measure of punitiveness over another. If they produce similar rankings, then presumably it does not matter which measure you use because any one measure would serve as a proxy for the others.

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Updated 05/20/2006