How a third party could reduce incarceration in the U.S.

June 17

(Benjamin C. Tankersley/The Washington Post.)

This is a guest post by political scientist Salomon Orellana.

The United States has a prison population of over 2.2 million people — just over 1 percent of adults — and another 5 million under probation or parole. The costs of this appear to be unsustainable, not only in terms of the financial costs associated with incarceration but also the damage inflicted on families and communities. And despite these costs, the United States still has the highest murder rate among advanced democracies.  It’s no surprise, then, that prison reform is an increasingly bipartisan issue.

What can be done about the incarceration rate?  My research argues that the American two-party system is part of the problem. In my new book I find that countries with two-party systems tend to have higher incarceration rates because they are more susceptible to “policy pandering.”  Policy pandering happens when politicians pursue votes by taking positions and adopting policies that appeal to voters’ preference for quick-fix policies — even when these policies that are often detrimental to the society’s longer-term interests.

On issues related to “safety,” politicians try to win votes by emphasizing toughness. And when both parties (in a two-party system) emphasize toughness it sends a message to the public that toughness is the only legitimate response to crime. It should be no surprise that citizens in countries with two-party systems then tend to prefer punitive responses to crime, and that these preferences, in turn, encourage or force politicians to promote and adopt more “tough on crime” policies that further drive up incarceration rates.

Here is a bit of evidence from the book.  The graph below compares the incarceration rate in various countries with “legislative fractionalization,” or the probability that two deputies picked at random from the legislature will be from different parties. A score of .5 — which is about what the United States scores — indicates a pure two-party system.


The graph shows a clear correlation: incarceration rates are considerably lower in countries with more diverse party systems.  Further statistical analyses accounting for other factors suggest that countries with two-party systems incarcerate almost 200 more people (per 100,000 population) than countries with the most diverse party systems (countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway). That is a remarkable difference.

The graph also shows that the United States is an extraordinary outlier — with a 2008 incarceration rate of over 700 prisoners per 100,000 people. Thus, although the American two-party system certainly does not explain everything about the U.S. incarceration rate, the country would nevertheless benefit from the presence of a “consistently heard” dissenter that can help break the vicious cycle of pandering.

In multiparty systems, minor parties usually play that dissenting role. Especially in proportional systems, minor parties can win seats with a small percentage of the vote and thus take risks that major parties cannot, such as proposing alternatives to punishment. Third-party positions receive significant media attention and in the long run exposure to these positions can help make public preferences less punitive.

New Zealand is a good example. I examined the policy ideas that appeared in New Zealand’s largest newspaper before and after reforms in the mid-1990s that transformed New Zealand from a two-party system to a multiparty system. Under the two-party system, election coverage almost exclusively centered on tough-on-crime policies. Under the multiparty system, minor parties received much more attention and consequently a wider variety of positions emerged. There were still calls for punishment and enforcement, but there were also calls for alternative solutions. For example, the Greens, Alliance, and Legalize Cannabis parties promoted policies such as drug decriminalization, rehabilitation centers instead of prisons, mental services for the “criminally ill,” restorative justice and a general focus on prevention.

Of course, if the United States were to adopt a multiparty system, its incarceration rate would likely remain well above average due to other factors. For example, my research shows that having an elected president seems to magnify the pandering dynamic, especially when presidents are chosen via plurality rules rather than a runoff method, which tends to encourage more parties to compete for the presidency.

Moreover, there are clearly limits to what electoral system reforms can accomplish. Israel has a multiparty system and a relatively high level of incarceration. Israel’s broader security concerns may be one factor. On the other hand, it is always worth asking what Israel’s incarceration rate might be, if it had a two-party system and a president.

Institutions like party systems and the presidency are rarely reformed in significant ways, of course. But the potential effects of reform could be realized in other ways, such as via more media attention to minor parties, giving minor parties greater access to debates, or even providing minor parties with resources to disseminate their ideas.

Regardless of how reform might be implemented, the important point remains: the high rate of incarceration in the United States has roots in its electoral system. More political parties could ultimately mean fewer people behind bars.

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