Sociology Publications and Other Works

Title

Street Crime, Labor Surplus, and Criminal Punishment, 1980-1990

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

8-1997

Abstract

Conventional wisdom holds that variation in state use of criminal punishment is produced principally by variation in the rate of street crime. Neo-Marxist variants of conflict theory predict that use of punishment by capitalist states also varies with economic conditions generally and with the size of the labor surplus in particular. Many investigators have found support for this relationship, but recurring design and analytic shortcomings of their studies limit confidence in it. We test for the labor surplus/punishment relationship using a theoretically more appropriate sample and methodology. Residual-change regression analysis is applied to crime, demographic, economic, and prison-commitment data for a sample of 269 United States urban counties for the period 1980 to 1990. It identifies independent contributions to change in state use of imprisonment by change in violent street crime and in the proportionate size of both the young male population and the labor surplus. The findings, therefore, lend further support to and strengthen confidence in neo-Marxist theories of official punishment.

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