The great expansion in imprisonments in the United States in the past 35years is puzzling partly because this abrupt growth is completely unprecedented. Changes in the crime rates alone cannot explain this trend, and ideational accounts that focus on penal styles are problematic. Political explanations, however, show promise, given that governments must provide domestic order and candidates can use public concerns about race and street crime to win elections. This review highlights the empirical literature in sociology and also discusses some important findings in political science and economics. Law-and-order campaign appeals combined with a covert emphasis on the links between race and street crime used to overcome Republican electoral disadvantages seem to provide the most plausible explanations for the rapid increase in U.S. imprisonment rates in this racially divided society. Dissimilar political arrangements help explain why imprisonment trends in the United States have sharply departed from these trends in the affluent but less direct democracies in Western Europe.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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