How the United States Became the Most Punitive Democracy in the World

"In order to effectively dismantle mass incarceration, we must understand the forces that got us there. Peter Enns masterfully dissects the political and social processes that led to the US becoming the world's leader in incarceration, illustrating the central importance of mass public opinion in driving the punitive turn in correctional policy. The book is a welcome addition to the scholarship on mass incarceration, challenging many prevailing views and giving us important new insights on the past, present, and future of criminal justice reform." 


Incarceration NationThe rise of mass incarceration in the United States is one of the most critical outcomes of the last half-century. Incarceration Nation offers the most compelling explanation of this outcome to date. This book combines in-depth analysis of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon's presidential campaigns with sixty years of data analysis. The result is a sophisticated and highly accessible picture of the rise of mass incarceration. In contrast to conventional wisdom, Peter K. Enns shows that during the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, politicians responded to an increasingly punitive public by pushing policy in a more punitive direction. The book also argues that media coverage of rising crime rates helped fuel the public's punitiveness. Equally as important, a decline in public punitiveness in recent years offers a critical window into understanding current bipartisan calls for criminal justice reform. 

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"In Incarceration Nation, Peter Enns makes a mightily valuable contribution to our knowledge... Scholars have long debated whether political elites' tough-on-crime rhetoric caused the public to voice punitive attitudes (the elite manipulation hypothesis) or whether politicians simply followed the will of a punitive public when they supported tough-on crime policies (the democracy-at-work hypothesis)... Enns provides the most compelling evidence to date in favor of the latter hypothesis, a fact with which penologists will have to reckon for years to come." (Public Opinion Quarterly)

  • Kevin H. Wozniak, Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of Massachusetts Boston

 "It is a methodological tour de force, of interest not only to those concerned with criminal justice, but also to those interested in a more general question: what is, and should be, the role of public opinion in determining public policy outcomes in a democracy?" 

  • Frank R. Baumgartner, Richard J. Richardson Distinguished Professor of Political Science, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and coauthor of The Decline of the Death Penalty and the Discovery of Innocence

"This book delivers a substantial and important account of the influence of mass opinion on criminal justice policy over more than half a century, with broader implications for the study of democratic politics. Enns's emphasis on dynamics develops a novel and distinctive approach to understanding the politics of crime in the United States that is also highly relevant to the rise of penal populism across a number of advanced democracies." 

  • Will Jennings, University of Southampton

"It is said every society gets the criminals it deserves, but we get the justice system that we want. In this highly impressive new book, Peter Enns demonstrates precisely this: the growth of the incarceration nation was no accident and we are all implicated. The good news is that public opinion is changing dramatically on this issue. Enns's important analysis gives me great hope that if we can build it, we can also knock it down." 

  • Shadd Maruna, Dean, Rutgers School of Criminal Justice

"Enns builds his argument around a trove of evidence from decades of opinion polls on punishment and related issues; archival research from presidential campaign materials, position papers, and speeches by Barry Goldwater, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon; and statistical analysis of over-time and across-state variation in the relationship between measures of public opinion and the incarceration rate." (American Journal of Sociology)

  • Becky Pettit, University of Texas, Austin

"Enns develops a unique measure of public opinion in order to test its relationship to incarceration… He demonstrates that public opinion responded to rises in crime, but that punitive attitudes were exacerbated by the media, which over-reported violent crime and crimes committed by minorities. Likewise, Enns demonstrates that incarceration followed increasingly punitive public attitudes." (The Howard Journal of Crime and Justice)

  • Hannah L. Walker, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Criminal Justice, Rutgers University

"Peter K. Enns brilliantly highlights that the “tough on crime” agendas of politicians are actually a result of the public’s views and opinions." (Mogul

  • Catherine Atherton

"Przechodząc do ogólnej oceny prezentowanej książki, przede wszystkim podkreślić muszę, że – pomimo iż praca ta dotyczy USA – książka ta, jak rzadko która ukazuje jak system więziennictwa i jego poczynania głęboko tkwią w sferze mentalnej każdego społeczeństwa, a w konsekwencji w strukturze prawno ustrojowej każdego nowoczesnego państwa."



News Coverage (Articles): The Atlantic: Is Rural America Getting Tired of Tough-on-Crime Policies? / Newsweek: Will the Trump Administration Jail More Drug Felons? / Christian Science Monitor: Why New Jersey Incarcerates more People than Rwanda / The Society Pages: Fear of Crime and Punitive Policies / American Herald Tribune: The habit of thought that made U.S. vanguard in prisons and wars / Washington Post: Wonder why prisons stay full when crime goes down / Vermont Woman: No Justice for Women Jailed for Defending Themselves / Cornell Chronicle: New Book Sheds Light on U.S. Incaraceration Rate / Ithaca Voice: It's Public Opinion Behind our Crowded Prisons / The Roper Center / Santa Fe Reporter: The Advocate and the Hardliner / Scholars Strategy Network

Radio: Interview with Cyrus Webb on Conversations Live / The Peter Collins Show / Interview with Burt Cohen: How did we get to be Incarceration Nation? / The Bill Newman Show / A Rude Awakening with Sabrina Jacobs

Television/Video: Overview of Incarceration Nation / RNN TV (Richard French Live) / The David Pakman Show: How did incarceration get thid bad? / The Matthew Filipowicz Show / Wide Angle with Peter Bermudes