Vulnerable Democrats fill prisons to win votes

Last modified February 10, 2021. Published February 10, 2021.

Democratic governors in tight races get tougher on crime. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Democratic governors who win office by thin margins lock more people up and spend more money on jails and prisons than their Republican counterparts, according to new research, a finding the author said exposes some Democrats’ “complicity” in the rapid growth of institutions designed to punish criminals.

In an article published Jan. 29 in Political Research Quarterly, author Anna Gunderson found evidence that Democratic governors who faced close races courted voters by going “tough” on crime, leading them to ramp up corrections spending per capita and to incarcerate their residents at higher rates than Republicans who had eked out similarly tight wins.

The results challenge the widely held belief that Republicans’ actions alone have driven the country’s world-leading incarceration rate.

The growth of the “carceral state,” or the social and legal institutions that make up the country’s interlocking network of criminal justice systems, has directly and indirectly impacted millions of Americans, including 77 million people the Prison Policy Initiative estimates have some sort of criminal record.

“The construction of the carceral state was a bipartisan initiative — and I think the story really is as simple as that,” Gunderson told The Academic Times. “If we only look to or blame one party for that, [we’re] not telling the whole story.”

Gunderson, an expert on the politics of punishment and public policy, set out to take a closer look at the link between partisanship and the expansion of prisons, jails and incarcerated populations throughout the U.S. 

The trend toward increased incarceration has been driven largely by the states, according to Gunderson, noting that corrections currently represents the fifth-largest category of state spending after education, public welfare, health and hospitals and highways.

Politicians in Washington — including prominent Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Joe Biden — have played an important role in framing issues of criminal justice, she said. But the overall surge in adults under some type of “correctional control” stems mainly from state-level authorities who are on the front lines of law enforcement.

“On a day-to-day basis, for example, I might interact with a local police person, a county sheriff or a state trooper, all of which are under the purview of a local or state government,” Gunderson said. “The president and national figures in Congress do a lot to set the tone for local politics, but the truth of the matter is ... the incarceration rates that have exploded in the last couple of decades [are] the responsibility of the state governments.”

Earlier research on partisanship and punitive policy theorized that the Republican Party was the main driver of growth in prison spending and incarceration, but an emerging body of evidence painted a different picture of the politics of punishment, according to Gunderson.

“The bipartisan consensus that gave rise to a variety of carceral institutions at all levels of government is the focus of some studies chronicling the expansion of the carceral state … but it is not clear how complicit Democrats were in the expansion of punitive institutions at the state level,” she wrote. 

While not all Democratic candidates face the same electoral pressure to take “pro-corrections” stances, "Democrats are key architects of the carceral state in those election-years in which Democrats barely win, and that electoral competition is an essential conditioning factor in whether and how partisanship influences punitive outcomes,” Gunderson added.

Gunderson developed regression discontinuity analyses designed to estimate the causal impacts that Democratic governors who “barely won” — meaning in most cases that they received between 40% and 60% of the vote — had on three key outcomes: inflation-adjusted corrections spending per capita, incarceration rates and prison admissions rate.

Her statistical models revealed that Democratic governors who barely won increased corrections spending in their states by approximately $15 per capita.

Within the statistical “bandwidth” of cases where the Democratic governor won by a thin margin, corrections spending per capita increased as the governor’s vote margin expanded, a finding Gunderson said suggests “that Democratic gubernatorial strength has a direct, causal, and positive influence on corrections spending — Democratic governors spend more than Republican ones do, at least in close races.”

Her analysis also uncovered “tentative evidence” that Democratic governors who win close races increase their states’ incarceration rate by about 17% on average, and that these same governors admit between 34 and 48 more prisoners per 100,000 state population in the year after the election than Republican governors in the analogous position.

While further data would be needed to make sure these effects are robust, Gunderson said, the results may mean that Democratic governors who barely win "outincarcerate and outspend their Republican counterparts.”

The findings tell a story that may be surprising to advocates of the view that Republicans are the only architects of America’s sprawling criminal legal system, according to Gunderson, and focuses attention on the responsibility state officials bear for the carceral state.

“What I hope this paper does is throw a wrench into conventional understandings of how we got here, how we got the most massive criminal justice system in the entire world,” she said.

But it could also be cause for some optimism, she added, if the same bipartisan forces which first drove politicians to build the punitive system will now come together to rethink how criminal punishment is carried out.

“Hopefully … this paper speaks to how crime can be a unifying issue, both in the construction of the carceral state and now in 2021 to reforming it,” Gunderson said.

The article “Who Punishes More? Partisanship, Punitive Policies, and the Puzzle of Democratic Governors,” published Jan. 29 in Political Research Quarterly, was authored by assistant professor Anna Gunderson of Louisiana State University.

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