The Great Recession and State Criminal Justice Policy: Do Economic Hard Times Matter?

Peter Enns, Cornell University
Delphia Shanks-Booth, Cornell University
Publication Date:
Jan 2015
Project Programs:
The Social and Economic Effects of the Great Recession

Although the United States still imprisons a higher proportion of its population than any country in the world, in recent years, the decades-long trend of increasingly punitive criminal justice policies and a growing prison population has subsided. Changes unimaginable ten years ago, such as the decriminalization of certain low-level drug offenses, the closing of prisons, and a decline in the overall prison population have occurred. To what extent did the Great Recession influences these shifts?

To answer these questions, we focus on state spending on corrections (i.e., spending on prisons, jails, and parole offices) and state incarceration rates. Because state correctional facilities house the overwhelming majority of those incarcerated in the United States, states offer a critical window into mass incarceration. States are also central to understanding the link between economic conditions and criminal justice outcomes. Most states have balanced budget requirements, which means that states cannot carry a deficit from year-to-year. If a bad economic climate leads to less state revenue, something must be cut—and large corrections budgets would be one candidate for reduction. Consistent with this expectation, we do find a relationship between state economic conditions and state expenditures on corrections. We do not, however, find evidence that the Great Recession spurred this relationship. In fact, our analysis suggests that changes in crime rates and the public's punitiveness have been the fundamental factors in recent state criminal justice outcomes.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


The Russell Sage Foundation offers grants and positions in our Visiting Scholars program for research.


Join our mailing list for email updates.