‘The Better Way to Fight Crime’: Why Fiscal Arguments Do Not Restrain the Carceral State

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Political Science, International Development, and International Affairs


Social Science and Global Studies


© 2017, © The Author(s) 2017. In recent years, actors from across the political spectrum concerned about the expansion of the US carceral state have pointed to the fiscal impacts of incarceration in a time of public austerity. A new regime of public policies pledging to be ‘smart on crime’ has taken root as a result. Advocates of such policies operate on the assumption that fiscal arguments will shift the trajectory of prison expansion because commitments to austerity will override the costly ‘tough on crime’ regime that has driven prison expansion in the USA over the last 40 years. This article reverses this assumption through a consideration of state-level policy in Oregon, a state that has formally embraced a commitment to fiscal restraint and ‘justice reinvestment’ as a strategy to limit prison growth. Our historical analysis reveals that since statehood, commitments to austerity and taxpayer protection have always framed criminal justice policy debates. Understood from this perspective, the story is not that prison reform advocates have discovered a new framework (‘smart on crime’) to restrain prison growth. It is that the longstanding discourse and politics of fiscal austerity has come to incorporate and absorb a portion of the anti-prison movement itself. That is fiscal arguments for prison reform are fully commensurate with the logic that drove mass incarceration in the first place. As a result, the state’s prison population has continued to expand even in the era of ‘smart on crime’ policymaking because commitments to fiscal austerity have not fundamentally challenged the policies and discourses that fueled the initial prison boom in the state. As most prisoners in the USA continue to be confined in state institutions, the analysis of state-level policy development in this article offers important insights into ongoing political debates over decarceration.

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Theoretical Criminology





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