Of Fragmentation and Ferment: The Impact of Sentencing Policies on State-Level Incarceration Rates and Admissions to Prison, 1970-2002

Donald Stemen, The Vera Institute of Justice
James A. Wilson, Fordham University - Lincoln Center
Andres Rengifo, CUNY, John Jay College of Crim. Just.

The indeterminate sentencing structures that dominated criminal justice systems in the United States through the 1970s fragmented over the last three decades, replaced by patchworks of determinate and structured sentencing, mandatory sentencing, habitual offender laws, and truth-in-sentencing laws. During the same period, all states experienced rapid increases in admissions to prison and incarceration rates. Scholars have examined recent state-level reforms in an effort to understand their philosophical underpinnings; similarly, analysts have examined these dramatic changes in state prison populations in an effort to explain the social, political, or cultural factors driving incarceration. Yet, there remains a lack of comparative work systematically analyzing the influence of particular sentencing and corrections policies on variation in state-level prison populations over the last three decades. Those studies that have included policy influences in their analyses generally code policies as simple dichotomous variables, failing to account for variation in policies both across states and within states over time.

Using a pooled time series design, this paper assesses the impact of determinate sentencing, sentencing guidelines, mandatory sentencing laws, habitual offender laws, and truth in sentencing laws on changes in prison admissions and incarceration rates across all 50 states between 1970 and 2002. Rather than using dichotomous variables to denote the presence or absence of a policy in a state, each policy is scaled according to its scope of coverage or sentence severity; thus, the influence of policies and changes in policies on prison populations is assessed over time.

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Updated 05/20/2006