In recent decades, prison population increases in many countries have meant that the questions surrounding the scale of imprisonment have attracted more attention than any other issue in the field of criminal justice. While the institution of the prison is a universal characteristic of modern nations, imprisonment rates vary substantially from place to place and over time. Social, economic and historical theories have been developed to account for these variations both among different countries and within specific countries. However, empirical studies have proved these theories to be partially or completely unsuccessful in terms of providing a general plausible explanation. By comparing the realities of imprisonment rates in the US, selected European countries and China, this project will focus on how political structures and corresponding penal policy-making processes of certain countries have determined imprisonment rates over the past three decades. In this way, the project will propose a general political theory of imprisonment.

I. Is­sue and Con­text

Im­pris­on­ment is the most ser­i­ous pen­al sanc­tion that is fre­quently im­posed in the mod­ern state. Three kinds of ques­tions arise in re­la­tion to a so­ci­ety’s use of im­pris­on­ment: the first is the gen­er­al jus­ti­fic­a­tion of the use of im­pris­on­ment as a crim­in­al sanc­tion, which ad­dresses wheth­er pris­ons should be used as a crim­in­al sanc­tion; the second is the jus­ti­fic­a­tion of the use of im­pris­on­ment in par­tic­u­lar cases, which con­cerns wheth­er par­tic­u­lar of­fend­ers should be sent to pris­on in the first place; the third is the sep­ar­ate ques­tion of the scale of the use of pris­ons as a pen­al meth­od, which in­volves the size of a so­ci­ety’s pris­on sys­tem in re­la­tion to oth­er crim­in­al sanc­tions and to the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion.

How many pris­on­ers? How many pris­ons? What cri­ter­ia should gov­ern de­cisions about how large a pris­on sys­tem should be, or how it should be con­struc­ted and main­tained? The prob­lem of im­pris­on­ment rates is dis­tinct­ive and im­port­ant. Al­though con­cerns have been in­ter­mit­tently raised about pris­on over­crowding throughout the 20th cen­tury, little at­ten­tion has been paid to the factors which de­term­ine the ex­tent to which im­pris­on­ment is used. Dis­cus­sion of the pur­poses of pun­ish­ment in gen­er­al, and of im­pris­on­ment in par­tic­u­lar, have taken pre­ced­ence over ques­tions con­cern­ing how far the use of im­pris­on­ment is re­spons­ive to so­cial factors and what factors de­term­ine the amount of im­pris­on­ment im­posed.

As pris­on pop­u­la­tions have ris­en over the past few dec­ades, in­terest in the scale of im­pris­on­ment has at­trac­ted in­creased at­ten­tion in the field of crim­in­al justice. In con­tem­por­ary dis­cus­sions on pun­ish­ment it is cus­tom­ary though not without lim­it­a­tion, to use im­pris­on­ment rates per 100,000 as a meas­ure of both the sever­ity of pen­al policies in a jur­is­dic­tion and of changes over time. While the in­sti­tu­tion of the pris­on is a uni­ver­sal char­ac­ter­ist­ic of mod­ern na­tions, the scale of im­pris­on­ment var­ies sub­stan­tially from place to place and over time. Since the early 1970s, the United States and the Neth­er­lands have ex­per­i­enced stead­ily rising im­pris­on­ment rates so that they were roughly four times high­er, per cap­ita, at the be­gin­ning of the twenty-first cen­tury com­pared with early 1970s. Im­pris­on­ment rates in Eng­land and Wales were broadly stable from 1970 to the early 1990s after which they nearly doubled, rising to the highest level in the West­ern world after the United States. Sim­il­arly, over the past three dec­ades, China has also ex­per­i­enced a dra­mat­ic in­crease in its im­pris­on­ment rate. China now main­tains the second largest pris­on sys­tem in the world, second only to the US. It is es­tim­ated that since 1978 the Chinese im­pris­on­ment rate has in­creased between three and fourfold. At present the Chinese im­pris­on­ment rate is about 250 per 100,000. At the oth­er end of the scale, the im­pris­on­ment rate of Fin­land de­clined stead­ily from 1970 to 2000. Between these ex­tremes, pat­terns var­ied widely. Im­pris­on­ment rates in the Scand­inavi­an coun­tries oth­er than Fin­land re­mained stable, vary­ing between 50 and 70 per 100,000 throughout the peri­od. Im­pris­on­ment rates in France and Italy os­cil­lated, mov­ing up rap­idly, fall­ing ab­ruptly, mov­ing up rap­idly again, and so on. Ger­man im­pris­on­ment rates fell some­what by the early 1970s from their av­er­age level dur­ing the 1960s and were broadly stable dur­ing the 1970s, 80s, 90s and the first dec­ade of twenty-first cen­tury.

What are the factors which ac­count for these vari­ations? In oth­er words, what has de­term­ined the dif­fer­ent im­pris­on­ment policies in dif­fer­ent coun­tries? Five ma­jor the­or­et­ic­al mod­els have at­temp­ted to an­swer this ques­tion: Durheim’s (1900) so­cial con­trol mod­el, the Rusche-Kirch­heimer (1939) eco­nom­ic mod­el and the con­flict the­or­ies that emerged from this per­spect­ive, Liska’s (1992) so­cial threat mod­el, in­teg­rated or mul­tiple caus­al mod­els pro­posed by Savels­berg (1994), Caplow and Si­mon (1999), In­ver­ar­ity (1992) and Tonry (1999), and Black’s (1976, 1989) so­ci­olo­gic­al the­ory of law. In­spired by these tra­di­tion­al the­or­et­ic­al mod­els, nu­mer­ous em­pir­ic­al stud­ies have been un­der­taken in the US and Europe. However, these stud­ies have been proved to be par­tially or com­pletely un­sat­is­fact­ory in terms of provid­ing a gen­er­al plaus­ible ex­plan­a­tion of the vari­ations of im­pris­on­ment rates in these coun­tries.

It should be noted that over the past three dec­ades, polit­ic­al the­or­ies of im­pris­on­ment rates have also ac­cu­mu­lated. Zi­m­ring and Hawkins (1991) have ar­gued the pos­sib­il­ity and ne­ces­sity of the polit­ic­al eco­nomy of im­pris­on­ment. Jac­obs and Helms (1996), Jac­obs and Car­mi­chael (2001), Tonry (2004, 2009), Zi­m­ring (2005), Cavadino and Dig­nan (2006), Lacey (2008) and Bark­er (2009) ana­lyzed the polit­ics of im­pris­on­ment in the US. Some European crim­in­o­lo­gists have re­lated pen­al policies to the im­pris­on­ment rates in European coun­tries such as Eng­land and Wales, Bel­gi­um, the Neth­er­lands and Ger­many. However, gen­er­ally speak­ing, these stud­ies have been frag­ment­al and pa­ro­chi­al, and un­able to provide a gen­er­al ex­plan­a­tion between polit­ics and im­pris­on­ment. To a large ex­tent, the is­sue of the vari­ations of im­pris­on­ment rates re­mains un­re­solved.

II. Ob­ject­ives

As Tonry (2004, 2009) poin­ted out, a com­pre­hens­ive com­par­at­ive study of im­pris­on­ment rates is still ser­i­ously in­ad­equate. It should however be re­cog­nized that this type of com­par­at­ive re­search is un­doubtedly ne­ces­sary in the sense of provid­ing a sci­entif­ic found­a­tion for de­cision makers. As such, the ob­ject­ive of this pro­ject is to ex­plore the re­la­tion­ship between gov­ern­ment­al struc­tures as well as cor­res­pond­ing pen­al policy-mak­ing pro­cesses and the real­it­ies of im­pris­on­ment rates in spe­cif­ic coun­try by ana­lyz­ing the pen­al dy­nam­ics over the past three dec­ades in the US, China and se­lec­ted European coun­tries which rep­res­ent the five main pat­terns of im­pris­on­ment rates in the con­tem­por­ary world. Based on these com­par­at­ive, cross-sec­tion­al and lon­git­ud­in­al stud­ies, this pro­ject will de­vel­op a gen­er­al the­ory of the polit­ics of im­pris­on­ment rates and make some sug­ges­tions for fu­ture pen­al re­form. It is in­ten­ded that the re­search­ers in­volved in the pro­ject will pro­duce a series of art­icles or a mono­graph. In ad­di­tion, a col­lec­tion of con­fer­ence pa­pers will also be pub­lished.

III. Meth­ods

In this pro­ject, qual­it­at­ive meth­od­o­logy and quant­it­at­ive meth­od­o­logy as well as com­par­at­ive meth­od­o­logy and lon­git­ud­in­al ana­lys­is meth­ods will be com­bined. On the one hand, this pro­ject will crit­ic­ally re­view the the­or­ies avail­able to ex­plain vari­ations in im­pris­on­ment rates: a new im­pris­on­ment rate the­ory will also be pro­posed in the fi­nal part of this pro­ject. On the oth­er hand, em­pir­ic­al data and find­ings that re­late to im­pris­on­ment rates in the US, se­lec­ted European coun­tries and China from the past three dec­ades will be col­lec­ted and ana­lyzed. In ad­di­tion, the re­search­ers will con­duct in­ter­views with rel­ev­ant ex­perts and crim­in­al justice pro­fes­sion­als in China and se­lec­ted European coun­tries.