The United States has a prison population of over 2.2 million people — just over 1 percent of adults — and another 5 million under probation or parole. The costs of this appear to be unsustainable, not only in terms of the financial costs associated with incarceration but also the damage inflicted on families and communities. And despite these costs, the United States still has the highest murder rate among advanced democracies. It’s no surprise, then, that prison reform is an increasingly bipartisan issue.
What can be done about the incarceration rate? My research argues that the American two-party system is part of the problem. In my new book I find that countries with two-party systems tend to have higher incarceration rates because they are more susceptible to “policy pandering.” Policy pandering happens when politicians pursue votes by taking positions and adopting policies that appeal to voters’ preference for quick-fix policies — even when these policies that are often detrimental to the society’s longer-term interests.
On issues related to “safety,” politicians try to win votes by emphasizing toughness. And when both parties (in a two-party system) emphasize toughness it sends a message to the public that toughness is the only legitimate response to crime. It should be no surprise that citizens in countries with two-party systems then tend to prefer punitive responses to crime, and that these preferences, in turn, encourage or force politicians to promote and adopt more “tough on crime” policies that further drive up incarceration rates.
Here is a bit of evidence from the book. The graph below compares the incarceration rate in various countries with “legislative fractionalization,” or the probability that two deputies picked at random from the legislature will be from different parties. A score of .5 — which is about what the United States scores — indicates a pure two-party system.
The graph shows a clear correlation: incarceration rates are considerably lower in countries with more diverse party systems. Further statistical analyses accounting for other factors suggest that countries with two-party systems incarcerate almost 200 more people (per 100,000 population) than countries with the most diverse party systems (countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway). That is a remarkable difference.
Read the full article here.