Prison population swells under Republican presidents, study says

August 22, 2001

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The number of prisoners nationwide increases more under Republican presidents than it does when a Democrat leads the country, according to a new study that looked at 52 years of data.

Yet Bill Clinton was a major exception, in that the prison population also increased greatly during his terms in office.

The results suggest that politics plays a major role in how many people are put behind bars in the United States, said David Jacobs, co-author of the study and professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

"Republican presidents have tended to emphasize law and order more than Democrats, and the results show up in higher numbers of prisoners," Jacobs said.

"With Bill Clinton, though, the Democrats have seen the power of the law and order issue and have followed the Republicans by instituting policies that imprison more people."

Jacobs conducted the study with Ronald Helms, a professor of sociology at Western Washington University. Their results were published in a recent issue of the journal Social Science Research.

For the study, the researchers used a variety of federal data sources to examine the number of yearly prisoners per 100,000 population in the United States from 1947 through 1998. They included both federal and state prisoners.

The prison population increased dramatically over the time covered in the study. Prisoners per 100,000 population in the United States did not change much from 1946 to 1972, but this rate doubled between 1972 to 1985, when it went from 93.4 to 201.5. In another 13 years, the rate more than doubled again, reaching a total of 461 per 100,000 in 1998.

The researchers examined how the prison populations varied under Democratic and Republican administrations while controlling for other factors that could affect the number of prisoners, such as crime rate.

Even with these controls, prison populations tended to increase more under Republican administrations. Moreover, the researchers found that each additional year of a Republican presidency increased the acceleration in the number of prisoners, at least until the last years of a Republican presidential term.

There was other evidence that politics plays a role in prison populations. Results showed that prison populations grew faster in the year after a presidential election.

"Both parties now must compete for votes with strong law-and-order programs," Jacobs said. "Competition for votes in national elections induces incumbents from both parties to enact policies that lead to more people being sent to prison."

That competition for votes may also help explain why prison rates increased more under Bill Clinton than they did under other Democratic presidents.

"Democratic politicians who once were less likely to talk about the crime issue than Republicans now must convincingly demonstrate their support for tougher punishments if they are to win office in this political climate," he said.

While the political party of the president matters, partisanship in other governmental offices does not seem to have an effect in this study. But other work by Jacobs shows that increased Republican strength in the states produces larger state imprisonment rates.

The researchers found that other factors that some sociologists have theorized affect prison populations did not have an impact, at least not in this study. For example, the unemployment rate and the percentage of minorities in the population were not associated with the number of prisoners.

The results, however, did show that that prison populations grew in times of increased economic inequality, when there were larger gaps between the rich and poor.

Jacobs said this study shows that politics, and not just the crime rate, plays a powerful role in determining how many people get sent to prison in our society.

"Punishment is an inherently political process," he said.
Contact: David Jacobs, 614-292-6685; Written by Jeff Grabmeier, 614-292-8457;

Ohio State University

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