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The impact of state sentencing policies on the U.S. prison population


  • Zhang, Yan
  • Maxwell, Christopher D.
  • Vaughn, Michael S.


This article examines the aggregate effects of neoclassical sentencing reforms on three often contested outcomes of these reforms. The rate of new court commitments, the average length of time inmates serve, and prison population rates across the fifty U.S. states and the District of Columbia are examined. Data from 1973 to 1998 across these jurisdictions are analyzed using hierarchical multivariate linear models (HMLM). Results show that on the aggregate, sentencing reforms are not directly related to changes in state prison populations; however, abolition of parole is negatively associated with state prison population rates. Two types of sentencing reforms, the voluntary sentencing guidelines and the 'three-strikes' laws are indirectly related to changes in prison populations and have opposite influences on rates of new court commitments. Of six sentencing practices examined, not one is associated with length of incarceration. These results do not support the contention that neoclassical changes to the nation's sentence policies account for the rapid increase in the state prison populations between the early 1970s and late 1990s.

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  • Zhang, Yan & Maxwell, Christopher D. & Vaughn, Michael S., 2009. "The impact of state sentencing policies on the U.S. prison population," Journal of Criminal Justice, Elsevier, vol. 37(2), pages 190-199, March.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:jcjust:v:37:y::i:2:p:190-199

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Steven D. Levitt, 1996. "The Effect of Prison Population Size on Crime Rates: Evidence from Prison Overcrowding Litigation," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 111(2), pages 319-351.
    2. MacKenzie, Doris Layton & Tracy, George S. & Williams, George, 1988. "Incarceration rates and demographic changes: A test of the demographic change hypothesis," Journal of Criminal Justice, Elsevier, vol. 16(3), pages 241-253.
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    Cited by:

    1. Derek Neal & Armin Rick, 2016. "The Prison Boom and Sentencing Policy," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 45(1), pages 1-41.
    2. Steve Cook & Duncan Watson, 2013. "Breaks and Convergence in U.S. Regional Crime Rates: Analysis of Their Presence and Implications," Social Sciences, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 2(3), pages 1-11, August.
    3. Derek Neal & Armin Rick, 2014. "The Prison Boom and the Lack of Black Progress after Smith and Welch," NBER Working Papers 20283, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. Vîlcică, E. Rely, 2012. "Nature and consequences of dismissals: Implications for public safety and crime prevention in criminal courts in America," Journal of Criminal Justice, Elsevier, vol. 40(2), pages 103-116.

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