Crime and Punishment: The Politics of Federal Criminal Justice Sanctions Academic Article uri icon


  • The incarceration rate in federal penitentiaries has tripled in the past twenty-five years, marking an unprecedented incursion by the federal government into what was the near exclusive domain of sub-national jurisdictions. Numerous scholars, particularly outside the field of political science, have hypothesized about the causes of the burgeoning prison population; but few have systematically tested these propositions. Borrowing insights from organizational theory and the literature on bureaucratic politics, this article proposes a framework that incorporates the most plausible hypotheses from the literature and empirically models the environmental, structural, and political influences on the implementation of federal criminal justice sanctions. The analysis demonstrates that federal incarceration rates are largely uncorrelated with the national crime rate, but that other variables significantly affect the number of commitments, the average sentence of convicted prisoners, and the number of paroles annually. The model also reveals that the outputs of criminal justice bureaucracies are extremely autoregressive, with current sanctions determined largely by past agency behavior.

author list (cited authors)

  • Nicholson-Crotty, S., & Meier, K. J.

citation count

  • 14

publication date

  • June 2003