The U.S. incarceration rate increased by more than 500% since the 1970s, making the United States the world’s top jailer. This growth in the number of people behind bars was not necessarily driven by higher crime rates or an increase in the number of arrests. Rather, the probability of receiving a prison sentence, if convicted of a crime, increased substantially during this period. But why did that change? Why is the chance of going to prison for a given crime so much higher today than in decades past? Two common explanations are that judges became more punitive and that sentencing policies required prison for a longer list of crimes. I offer an alternative explanation that focuses on changes in the population of convicted defendants. Analyses of over 350,000 felony cases sentenced in Minnesota over a 33-year period show that the probability of a defendant receiving a prison sentence indeed increased from 1981 to 2013, as would be expected. The reason for the rising probability of imprisonment was not necessarily more draconian sentencing policies or more punitive judges. It was a significant increase in the average offender’s criminal record that led to the higher likelihood of imprisonment.
Dr. Ryan King is Professor of Sociology at the Ohio State University. His interests are in criminology, law and society, criminal punishment, and intergroup conflict, with secondary lines of work focusing on the life course and anti-Semitism. Dr. King has written on the topics of hate crime law and behavior, incivility, criminal deportation, punitive attitudes, crime and violence against minority groups, and the relationship between crime, punishment and various facets of family life (e.g., marriage, divorce, and parent-child relations). Current research projects investigate the causes of hate crime, the effects of parental incarceration on child wellbeing, the criminal sentencing and deportation of non-citizens, the relationship between hate crime and terrorism, and the association between skin hue and criminal sentencing.