PROJECT SUMMARY

The nation is currently at a crossroads. After decades of enacting policies designed to put more people in prison for longer amounts of time, lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle have called for a rethinking of excessive criminalization and imprisonment.

The recent flurry of federal, state and local criminal justice reform raises important questions for social scientists. In particular, social science research can uncover successful paths to legislative reform and the roadblocks that remain in the way.

The proposed research project seeks to answer why some states have aggressively pursued reform, while others have largely maintained the penal status quo. Georgia and Florida, for example, have similar political contexts, but Georgia has passed significant reform legislation, while Florida has taken very few steps to reduce its incarcerated population. 

The proposed research project seeks to answer why some states have aggressively pursued reform, while others have largely maintained the penal status quo.

While scholars and activists have questioned the ability of current reforms to significantly reduce the size and scope of punishment in the United States, some type of state policy reforms will be needed to create real decarceration.

Thus, it is vital to understand the factors that lead to more significant reform. The proposed research thus asks, how do state level penal and political actors and organizations, the resources they deploy, and their norms and commitments interact to create or impede significant reform?

Yet the idea that different penal field configurations will lead to different policy outcomes has not be sufficiently developed or tested.

This project will advance socio-legal theories on the state level determinants of penal change. Existing theories point to the importance of “state penal fields” or the people who determine penal priorities, their relative positions, their assumptions and values, and the resources by which they struggle to advance their position. 

Yet the idea that different penal field configurations will lead to different policy outcomes has not be sufficiently developed or tested. Prior research was constrained in part because the outcome of interest – the type and extent of change – had limited variation. Until recently, the overwhelming trend was sustained high rates of incarceration growth.  In addition, neither large-n nor case study research could simultaneously account for the impact of the shifting national context over time, the variation in state social structures, governing institutions and political traditions, and the micro-struggles over policy priorities.

Our project also overcomes the limits of prior research by comparing legislative efforts within a limited time frame (2000-2016) in three sets of matched states that differ in their extent of decarcerative reforms (NJ-PA; GA-FL; IL-OH). Matching states on region controls for underlying political, social and economic structures that shape the politics of reform. 

Our project also overcomes the limits of prior research by comparing legislative efforts within a limited time frame (2000-2016) in three sets of matched states that differ in their extent of decarcerative reforms

While comparative case studies of reform drawn from archival, media and interview data focus an analytical lens on the specific actors and organizations that make legal and policy decisions that ultimately impact levels of incarceration. The paired case study comparison will allow co-PIs to develop specific propositions about how certain configurations of players, resources, and strategies lead to different types of penal change. Propositions will then be applied across cases in order to test whether they hold in differing state contexts.

Our project will expose what works to create state legislative and administrative reform with the most decarcerative potential. Mass incarceration has harmed individuals, families, communities in countless visible and invisible ways. 

Our project will expose what works to create state legislative and administrative reform with the most decarcerative potential.

It has exacerbated race and class inequality, perverted the labor market, and undermined faith in government and the political system.  National and state lawmakers’ choices led to mass incarceration. 

Now political leaders are beginning to understand the associated problems and have called for limited measures toward decarceration. Yet to cut incarceration rates in half, as some are now advocating, will take more significant reform. The research findings will provide lawmakers, interest groups, and reform advocates with empirical examples of the strategies, resources and processes that brought about successful reform. Lastly, the findings will help activist and lawmakers identify common concerns that can help sustain significant reform.