The Politics of Prisons: Location Affects Legislators’ Voting on Criminal Reform

Legislators representing rural areas with prisons are less likely to support lighter sentencing and other criminal reforms. A new study argues that's because these rural legislators think they have an economic interest in keeping the prison business booming.

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The “growth industry” of rural prisons is one reason some rural state lawmakers are resisting efforts to reform sentencing guidelines and make other changes in the nation’s penal system, a study says.

While many states are exploring ways to reduce their prison populations because of budget problems and questions about the effectiveness of sentencing, rural legislators representing districts that contain prisons are more likely to oppose such changes, according to Rebecca U. Thorpe.

Thorpe is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington. Her study on the influence of prisons on rural legislators’ criminal-reform votes was published in the journal Perspectives on Politics.

Because prison development has been a steady economic-development strategy for rural areas for the past generation, we wanted to learn more about Thorpe’s study. She said the findings varied by degree across her study area of Washington state, New York, and California. But the general trend appeared everywhere: Legislators whose districts are tied to the prison economy are out of step with a growing consensus across the political spectrum that sentencing guidelines and other measures need to change.


Daily Yonder: You looked at state legislators in California, New York, and Washington and their votes on prison and sentencing-guideline changes. What did you find?

Thorpe: Since the 2000s, and especially since 2009, with the recession, with states having fiscal crises, there has been a growing recognition that prisons are extremely economically inefficient. There’s growing opposition to harsh penalties for non-violent drug offenses, growing recognition that sentencing is racially biased. You have legislators, both at the state level and at the federal level, increasingly speaking out against these policies and trying to reform them.

But I found that during this time period in the 2000s, as these measures have gained increasing political support, some of the strongest holdouts are state legislators that represent districts, predominantly rural districts, with these prison economies.


Daily Yonder: How strong was that effect? Is it subtle? Is it obvious?

Thorpe: For my project, I looked at three states. I looked at New York, California, and Washington. I found that it was weakest in Washington state, which is not actually too surprising because Washington has very few prisons. It has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, so rural counties and rural districts in Washington state just don’t have as many prisons as the other states. The prison economy isn’t as prominent in Washington as it is in other places.

This chart from Thorpe’s journal article shows the difference in voting behavior of New York legislators based on the number of prisons they have in their districts. Rural legislators (shown in the green bars) with three or more prisons in their districts were 50 points more likely to support punitive sentencing and oppose prison reform than rural colleagues with no prisons in their districts.

The effect was stronger in New York and California, and it was particularly strong among Democratic legislators. The reason for this is that at least in the votes that I was looking at in my data set, Republicans were more likely to support these penalties and oppose criminal justice reform, again regardless of the composition of their district, but there was more variation among Democratic legislators. For example, in New York state, Democratic legislators’ opposition to drug law reforms changed from about 40% in a rural area with no prisons at all to about 90% in a rural area with the largest possible prison capacity. That’s a 50 point shift; that’s a pretty sizable change.


Daily Yonder: How do you know that you are measuring the impact of prisons being located in these rural legislative districts and not just general political trends, such as the tendency of rural areas generally being more conservative on crime issues?

Thorpe: It is very difficult to completely disentangle those two things. … But to do this, I included measures of ideology score, which are standard measures that political scientists and other social scientists have used in order to control for ideology. In addition to that, I also looked at the difference in voting behaviors between legislators with similar ideological dispositions and shared partisanship in rural areas and an area that’s otherwise identical, or comparable at the very least, except that one of these rural areas has prisons within the district and the other one doesn’t. I found that the member representing the rural area with prisons is more likely to support harsh penalties and more likely to oppose criminal justice reform than a legislator from an otherwise comparable rural area without any prisons at all.

That suggests, at the very least, that the existence of prisons has some independent effect aside from the general conservatism that tends to exist in these rural places. …

I would speculate, and I can only speculate because I haven’t looked at other states, that places with a larger prison apparatus, and particularly where prisons have spread out into predominantly rural areas, that the effects will be stronger in those places than in states that don’t have as many prisons to begin with.


Daily Yonder: Your study didn’t find such a correlation between prisons and voting against prison reform among metropolitan legislators. Why do you think that is?

Thorpe: I think that that’s the case because a lot of rural areas are more economically vulnerable than people living in urban areas. Rural areas tend to be characterized by low population density and they’re more economically homogenous, so there aren’t as many diverse industries. … When industries [such as family agriculture, logging, mining, and manufacturing] could no longer be relied on to create steady and stable jobs, prisons all of a sudden became politically attractive for these areas. Once the prisons were established, then this also has self-reinforcing consequences because prisons are largely toxic assets, meaning that they’re unlikely to attract other industries to that area unless those industries actually support the prisons. You might have service industries and things like that, but those jobs tend to be low-skilled and low paying. Then you have an economy that’s basically built around the entire prison.


Daily Yonder: If you were talking to people in a community that was considering prison development as an economic strategy, what do you think would be good things for them to consider in their public conversations about that issue?

Thorpe: I think that it’s important to emphasize that these are really short-term remedies. In the short term, yes, it may bring jobs and it may bring revenue, but in the long run, it won’t help the economy develop. In fact, in the long run, it’ll actually stifle other potential areas of economic development because the prison itself serves as a deterrent to a lot of the other industries. So then you’re reliant on the existence of that prison, and you’re reliant on keeping that prison full.




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