The Great Recession and State Criminal Justice Policy: Explaining the Unexpected

Awarded Scholars:
Peter Enns, Cornell University
Project Date:
Feb 2012
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
The Social and Economic Effects of the Great Recession

Peter Enns investigates how the Great Recession has affected incarceration rates in America.

Between 2009 and 2010, the total state and federal prison population declined for the first time since 1972, and the number of individuals in state prisons actually peaked in 2008. At the same time, state and federal corrections expenditures in 2010 decreased for the first time since the mid-1970s. These changes raise a straightforward question: are these reversals in long-term trends a direct response to the post-recession economic climate? Or is something more involved? Professor Peter Enns, of Cornell University, suggests that it is not simply the economics of the Great Recession at work, but rather the result of an interaction between a changing political context and public opinion.

Enns proposes to study two interrelated propositions: first, that the recent contraction of the carceral state should not be viewed as a direct response to budget constraints but rather as an ongoing process of policy choices shaped by the public’s evolving attitudes about being tough on crime; and second, that it is also necessary to understand how the recession influenced elite rhetoric, particularly among political conservatives who were the strongest advocates of tough-on-crime policies. The key idea, according to Enns, is that public opinion in regard to crime policy has become less punitive over time, and that the fiscal environment of the Great Recession allowed political elites who had previously advocated tough-on-crime positions to align their rhetoric with emerging public opinion without suffering a political cost with their conservative constituents.

Prior work on the factors influencing state incarceration rates has incorporated a large number of social, economic, demographic, and policy variables. Enns will assemble a similar set of variables, but a key addition will be state-level measures of the public’s punitiveness over time. The measure of punitiveness will be constructed from multiple sources including the General Social Survey and the American National Election Studies. He will use multilevel models to assess the relationship of punitiveness to incarceration net of standard controls, and will also examine the possibility of indirect effects by considering how public punitiveness might operate through the election of state officials or the enactment of particular criminal justice policies.

Enns will then consider the effect of the Great Recession on elite rhetoric by examining how the language around criminal justice issues and budget priorities evolved among journalists, politicians, and interest groups between 2004 and 2011. Content analysis software will be used to obtain and analyze materials from various media such as The New York Times and USA Today, interest group websites, and websites of political candidates. These data will largely be used to measure the timing and magnitude of any shift in elite rhetoric, and especially changes in the rhetoric of conservative politicians who are generally associated with more punitive criminal justice policy positions.

In the final two parts of his study, Enns will carry out several randomized experiments using Amazon Mechanical Turk and YouGov. The purpose is to assess the influence of elite rhetoric on public opinion. Messages about crime and punishment will be randomly presented to evaluate whether the subjects’ attitudes change when exposed to particular messages. Finally, Enns will analyze current criminal justice policies and their implications for those most affected by the justice system. The question to be addressed is whether changes in policy that promote decreased prison populations and corrections spending stem from a broader effort to reform the criminal justice system or from piecemeal efforts to reduce correctional costs.


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