Explanations of American punishment policies: A national history

Michael Tonry

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101 Scopus citations


None of the conventional explanations why American penal policies became so severe - rising crime rates, harsh public attitudes and cynical electoral politics - are persuasive. Nor are various 'conditions of late modernity' such as the limited capacities of governments, increasing population diversity or increasing insecurity and risk aversion. All these things characterized every developed country in much of the period 1975-2000 and most did not adopt drastically harsher policies. Nor are such amorphous and over-generalized notions as 'populist punitiveness', 'penal populism' and neo-liberalism of much use. Some things do have explanatory power cross-nationally. Moderate penal policies and low imprisonment rates are associated with low levels of income inequality, high levels of trust and legitimacy, strong welfare states, professionalized as opposed to politicized criminal justice systems and consensual rather than conflictual political cultures. For each of those factors, the United States falls at the wrong end of the distribution. The question is, Why? Four answers stand out: the 'paranoid style' in American politics; a Manichean moralism associated with fundamentalist religious views; the obsolescence of the American constitution; and the history of race relations in the USA.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)377-394
Number of pages18
JournalPunishment and Society
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2009

Bibliographical note

Copyright 2009 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • American exceptionalism
  • Fundamentalism
  • Paranoid politics
  • Penality
  • Punishment


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