Understanding American Mass Imprisonment from a Canadian Perspective
Until the early 1970s, the United States and Canada both had relatively stable imprisonment rates. This paper uses Canada’s continued stability in its rate of incarceration since this period to develop two intertwined explanations for the growth in US imprisonment between 1973 and 2010. First, using data on the relative size of the growth in imprisonment of the individual states, it presents findings that suggest that increased imprisonment was intimately linked to underlying social values. For instance, those states with the largest increases in incarceration were, in terms of the values of their citizens, least “Canadian-like.” In addition, high imprisonment states tended to have values favoring social exclusion. Second, we argue that the United States has consistently demonstrated penal optimism—that is, a strong faith in the ability of the criminal justice system to reduce crime. Prior to the mid-1970s, it was broadly believed that the recourse to prison through a rehabilitation model whereby offenders were treated or “cured” could reduce crime. Starting in the mid-1970s, the focus of optimism changed such that crime was now seen as being able to be controlled through the deterrent and incapacitative effects of high imprisonment. In contrast, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, Canada has never been optimistic that the criminal justice system—through any mechanism—could have a substantial impact on crime rates. By extension, imprisonment was seen as a necessary evil to be minimized as much as possible.
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