Inequality and Punishment: A Turning Point for Mass Incarceration?

Michelle S. Phelps, Devah Pager

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


After decades of steady expansion, state prison populations declined in recent years for the first time since 1972. Though the size of the decrease was small, it masks substantial state heterogeneity. This article investigates variation in state-level incarceration rates from 1980 through 2013, examining the factors associated with the rise and decline in prison populations. We find evidence for four key stories in explaining the prison decline: crime, budgets, politics, and inequality. Many of these relationships are consistent across decades, including the role of racial composition, violent crime, and Republican political dominance. In contrast, states’ fiscal capacity and economic inequality became more important after 2000. This research emphasizes the importance of examining changes over time in the correlates of incarceration growth and decline and represents the first effort to systematically understand the recent reversal in the trajectory of incarceration practices in the United States.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)185-203
Number of pages19
JournalAnnals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015, © 2015 by The American Academy of Political and Social Science.

Copyright 2015 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • decarceration
  • inequality
  • mass incarceration
  • prisons


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