American Incarceration

November 28, 2018

 The United States of America has an interesting legal system that has not been immune to adopting more punitive approaches to crime (Webster & Doob, 2008, p. 474). Unlike other countries, they have failed to banish the death penalty completely. The death penalty is the ultimate punitive approach to crime and follows a tough on crime model that follows incarceration. Incarceration also shows a punitive approach in comparison to the other options available within the justice system. Incarceration may be one of the causes of the drop in crime rates in the 1990’s but there are other reasonable theories that could explain the crime rate. These other theories include: the decline in the use of paper money, the National leader, police practices, civilizing process, demographics, and abortion. The increased rate of incarceration in the U.S. can be used to explain the drop in crime rates in the early 1990s.

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Tough on Crime

It could be argued that incarceration does not affect crime rates, but rather states are adjusting their incarceration rates based on the crime rates (Ouimet, 2002, p. 38). However, America bought into the tough on crime policies which made them more likely to incarcerate people for their crimes as a method of deterring them from future crime (Webster & Doob, 2008, p. 473). They employed the death penalty which was a tactic used to scare people from committing serious crimes that could result in the death penalty. America is more likely to use incarceration rather than other methods of punishment such as community service. This is because it is believed the tougher the punishment, the less likely people will commit crimes in order to avoid being punished. If the punishment is a ‘slap on the wrist’, people would likely be more willing to accept the consequences. The opposite has been found to be true as Canada has lower incarceration rates as well as lower crime rates (Webster & Doob, 2008, p. 475).


Crime Trends

There was a decline in use of paper money during this period as more people used debit cards or credit cards as a way of not handling large sums of money in public (Ouimet, 2002, p. 39). Theft from a person walking down the street was possible with a large sum of money or burglaries into houses to steal stored large sums of money (Ouimet, 2002, p. 39). In thefts or robberies, there is a possibility of death for the person being victimized (Ouimet, 2002, p. 39). The lowered rates of crime in these three areas could attribute to the overall drop in crime rates if there was a large enough effect. This explanation for the drop in crime rates is plausible because thieves would try to rob people or houses and after a few times they would realize that no one keeps money on them so a few would cease. his explanation would likely have to be used in combination with another explanation because it is not strong enough to cause a severe drop.


Crime related to President?

Depending on the National leader, it has been found that crime rates are positively or negatively affected. For instance, recently it was found Barack Obama dropped crime rates by 7% once he came into office (Lane, 2011, p. 563). Ronald Regan was the president before 1990 and George Bush took over presidency in 1990 (Lane, 2011, p. 563). The president has to be respected by their people in order for people to listen to the nation’s rules. If the leader is not respected, then people do not care to follow the rules as they want to make the president’s job harder and drive them out of office. George Bush was elected under controversial conditions at the peak of the homicide rate (Lane, 2011, p. 563). So any drop in the crime rate during the 1990’s may not have been directly from the president. The drop in crime rate may not come directly from the president themselves, it could be from the policies the president has implemented over their term. The presidential election is a huge deal and there is much hype that surrounds it. Donald Trump has caused riots just from campaigning. It depends what type of person the leader is, but it is likely the National Leader did not affect the crime rates around 1990.


Theories for Crime Rates

Police practices would be initiatives police added to catch people such as ride programs to lower the number of drivers who would commit a felony by driving under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs. If there is a police presence people are less likely to commit a crime, which is why there is a greater number of officers per capita in America (Ouimet, 2002, p. 35). America is also densely populated so having a greater number of officers is viewed as positive. Even though police officials would like to believe they are doing a stellar job and as a result have caused the lowered crime rates, many of the police practices were implemented after the drop in crime had occurred (Ouimet, 2002, p. 39). For instance, gun patrols were implemented after the crime rate had already started to drop and only major cities experienced the change in policing practices (Ouimet, 2002, p. 39). Therefore, this theory is the least able to explain the drop in crime rate.


Civilizing processes refer to people becoming intolerant to crime in their neighbourhoods, so they take initiative to make changes such as neighbourhood watch programs and policing their neighbours (Ouimet, 2002, p. 39). The crack epidemic could be an applicable example of civilizing because people would have gotten tired of addicts roaming the same streets their children play on, so they would have put barriers into place to prevent the crack epidemic (Lane, 2011, p. 563). The community standards were raised by policing each other within the communities to stop crack addicts from being everywhere. The economically disadvantaged part of town would not care as much. Crack is addictive so many people who did take it would not have been able to quit on their own. People would have stopped selling crack to addicts to prevent them from getting high and committing drug related crimes. These crimes would include drugs themselves, thefts, assault, and possible manslaughter. The crack epidemic alone would not explain the drop in crime rates on its own because not everyone would be consuming crack, it was illegal so there would have only been the few odd people who broke the law smoking crack.



Demographics use age categories to determine who is more likely to commit crimes (Ouimet, 2002, p. 37). Generally, teenagers or young adults are considered to be the primary age bracket of criminal offenders and the people more likely to re-offend (Ouimet, 2011, p. 37). A problem with this explanation is many people believe the drop should have occurred earlier based on the given demographics (Ouimet, 2002, p. 37). The cohort effect would explain that people born in earlier years were more criminal that those born later (Ouimet, 2002, p. 37). Abortion was legalized before the crime drop which resulted in less children to be born to become delinquent during the 1990’s. The number of single parent households also increased around this time as it became more socially acceptable to get a divorce (Ouimet, 2002, p. 39). Theories stipulate that many children are delinquent if they are only raised in a one parent household because the parenting ability shifts when there is only one parent in comparison to two.



In conclusion, higher incarceration rates are able to explain the drop in crime rate but there are other plausible theories that are able to explain the drop in crime as well. Police practice was the only theory that would not have affected the crime rate during the time period. The use of paper money, civilizing, demographics, abortion, and the National leader are all viable explanations. Using multiple theories may explain the crime drop the best depending on what would complement the time period. There is not a definitive answer as to why the crime rates dropped, and multiple factors could play a role all of these suggestions are theories not facts so anything is possible.



Lane, R. (2011). Taking the mystery out of murder rates: Can it be done? Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, 8(2), 553–565. Retrieved from


Ouimet, M. (2002). Explaining the American and Canadian crime “drop” in the 1990s. Canadian Journal of Criminology, 44(1) 33–50. Retrieved from


Webster, C., & Doob, A. (2008). America in a larger world: The future of the penal harm movement. Criminology and Public Policy, 7(3), 473–487. doi:10.1111/j.1745- 9133.2008.00522.x

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