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Chapter 6: Deviance, Crime and Social Control

6.4 The Get-Tough Approach: Boon or Bust?

It would be presumptuous to claim to know exactly how to reduce crime, but a sociological understanding of its causes and dynamics points to several directions that show strong crime-reduction potential. Before sketching these directions, we first examine the get-tough approach, a strategy the United States has used to control crime since the 1970s.

Harsher law enforcement, often called the get-tough approach, has been the guiding strategy for the U.S. criminal justice system since the 1970s. This approach has involved increased numbers of arrests and, especially, a surge in incarceration since the 1970s (referred to as ). Figure 6.3 “U.S. State and Federal Prison Population, 1980 – 2019” demonstrates the significant increase in prisoners, with the prison population rising from approximately 550,000 in 1980 to its peak of over 1.6 million in 2008. Since 2008, the prison population has declined slightly. In 2019,U.S. state and federal prisons housed 1,430,800 prisoners. Note that these figures do not include people incarcerated in local jails, youth detention facilities, immigrant detention centers, and the like. If we counted all people held in such institutions, the total number in 2020 was 2.3 million who were confined nationwide, or 698 per every 100,000 people in the population (Sawyer & Wagner, 2020).

Figure 6.3 U.S. State and Federal Prison Population 1980 – 2019

Graph showing the U.S. State and Federal Prison Population 1980 - 2019, ranging from around 500,000 in 1980, peaking at over 1,500,000 in 2008, with a slight decline by 2020.

Source: Data from U.S. Bureau of Justice, Prisoner Series. Retrived from: https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm/content/content/data/index.cfm?ty=pbse&sid=40

Reflecting this surge, the United States now has the highest incarceration rate by far in the world. As shown in Figure 6.4 “International Rates of Incarceration Per 100,000,” other than El Salvador, the U.S. incarceration rate is something of an anomaly when compared to other nations. This is especially true when comparing the U.S. to other post-industrial nations, such as Australia, Canada and Sweden. In this case, the U.S. has 5 – 11 times more prisoners than these other post-industrial nations.

Figure 6.4 International Rates of Incarceration Per 100,000

Bar chart showing International Rates of Incarceration Per 100,000 in the population: U.S. is 655 per 100,000, El Salvador is 618, Rwanda is 464, Brazil is 333, Australia is 127, Spain is 127, China is 118, Canada is 114, France is 104, Germany is 77, Denmark is 63, Sweden is 59 and India is 33 per 100,000.

Source: Walmsley, R. (2019). World Prison Brief. London: Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research. https://prisonstudies.org/world-prison-brief-data

Many scholars trace the beginnings of the get-tough approach and mass incarceration to efforts by the Republican Party to win the votes of whites by linking crime to African Americans. These efforts increased public concern about crime and pressured lawmakers of both parties to favor more punitive treatment of criminals to avoid looking soft on crime (Beckett & Sasson, 2004; Pratt, 2008). According to these scholars, the incarceration surge stems much more from political decisions and pronouncements, many of them racially motivated, by lawmakers than from trends in crime rates. As we noted earlier in this chapter, the conventional crime rate has declined significantly. Beckett and Sasson (2004, pp. 104, 128) summarize this argument:

Crime-related issues rise to the top of the popular agenda in response to political and media activity around crime—not the other way around. By focusing on violent crime perpetrated by racial minorities…politicians and the news media have amplified and intensified popular fear and punitiveness.…Americans have become most alarmed about crime and drugs on those occasions when national political leaders and, by extension, the mass media have spotlighted these issues.

For instance, in the early 1970’s, President Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” in response to the social upheaval and political dissent of the 1960’s. Nixon’s “War on Drugs” resulted in a dramatic increase in funding for federal agencies tasked with controlling the spread and use of drugs, as well as the adoption of mandatory minimum sentencing practices, which mandate that offenders found guilty of certain crimes be given mandatory minimum prison sentences. This results in less flexibility in sentencing and often longer prison terms. In the 1980’s, President Ronald Reagan embarked on an expansion of the “War on Drugs” and further use of mandatory minimum sentencing, which dramatically expanded the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses. In 1994, during the Clinton administration, the “three strikes” statute was adopted at the federal level, resulting from the U.S. Department of Justice’s anti-violence strategy. For offenders found guilty in federal court of a severe or violent felony crime, for which they had two or more similar prior convictions, they would automatically receive a mandatory life sentence in prison. Many states followed suit, adopting their own three-strikes laws, further expanding the prison population.

Today, as stated, more than 2.3 million Americans are incarcerated in jail or prison at any one time, a 500% increase over the past 40 years (Warren, 2009; The Sentencing Project, 2020). This increase in incarceration has cost the nation hundreds of billions of dollars since then. While the size of the correctional population is still extraordinarily high compared to other nations due to changes in policy and practice in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the rate of incarceration did begin to decline slightly starting in 2008, as noted earlier. Similarly, within this same timeframe, the total correctional population (including prisoners and those on probation or parole) declined from over 7,312,600 to 6,613,500 (Kaeble & Cowhig, 2018).

Despite the massive expenditure to maintain such a large prison population, criminologists question whether it has helped lower crime significantly (Piquero & Blumstein, 2007; Raphael & Stoll, 2009). Although crime fell by a large amount during the 1990s as incarceration rose, and continues to decline, scholars estimate that the increased use of incarceration accounted for at most only 10%–25% of the crime drop during this decade. They conclude that this result was not cost effective and that the billions of dollars spent on incarceration would have had a greater crime-reduction effect had they been spent on crime-prevention efforts. They also point to the fact that the heavy use of incarceration today means that some 700,000 prisoners are released back to their communities every year, creating many kinds of problems (Clear, 2007). A wide variety of evidence, then, indicates that the get-tough approach has been more bust than boon.

Recognizing this situation, several citizens’ advocacy groups have formed since the 1980s to call attention to the many costs of the get-tough approach and to urge state and federal legislators to reform harsh sentencing practices and to provide many more resources for former inmates. One of the most well-known and effective such groups is the Sentencing Project, which describes itself as “a national organization working for a fair and effective criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing law and practice, and alternatives to incarceration.” The Sentencing Project was founded in 1986 and has since sought “to bring national attention to disturbing trends and inequities in the criminal justice system with a successful formula that includes the publication of groundbreaking research, aggressive media campaigns and strategic advocacy for policy reform.” The organization’s Web site features a variety of resources on topics such as racial disparities in incarceration, women in the criminal justice system, and drug policy (http://www.sentencingproject.org).

Additionally, many sociologists and other social scientists think it makes more sense to try to prevent crime than to wait until it happens and then punish the people who commit it. That does not mean abandoning law enforcement, of course, but it does mean paying more attention to the sociological causes of crime as outlined earlier in this chapter and to institute programs and other efforts to address these causes. For example, the social ecology approach suggests paying attention to the social and physical characteristics of urban neighborhoods that are thought to generate high rates of crime. These characteristics include, but are not limited to, poverty, joblessness, dilapidation, and overcrowding. Strain theory suggests paying attention to poverty, while the differential association and social control theories remind us of the need to focus on peer influences and family interaction. The labeling theory reminds us of the strong possibility that harsh punishment may do more harm than good, and feminist explanations remind us that much deviance and crime is rooted in the expectations associated with masculinity.

A sociological understanding of deviance suggests the potential of several strategies and policies for reducing conventional crime (Currie, 1998; Greenwood, 2006; Jacobson, 2005; Welsh & Farrington, 2007). Such efforts would include, at a minimum, the following:

  • Establish a higher minimum wage and focus on job creation, especially centered in urban areas.
  • Establish youth recreation programs and in other ways strengthen social interaction and social bonds in urban neighborhoods.
  • Improve living conditions and reform social institutions in urban neighborhoods.
  • Change male socialization practices.
  • Establish early childhood intervention programs to help high-risk families.
  • Establish universal pre-school and improve the nation’s schools.
  • Provide alternative corrections for non-dangerous prisoners in order to reduce prison crowding and costs and to lessen the chances of repeat offending.
  • Provide better educational and vocational services and better services for treating and preventing drug and alcohol abuse for ex-offenders.

This is not a complete list, but it does point the way to the kinds of strategies that would help get at the roots of conventional crime and, in the long run, help greatly to reduce it. Although the United States has been neglecting this crime-prevention approach, programs and strategies such as those just mentioned would in the long run be more likely than our current get-tough approach to create a safer society. For this reason, sociological knowledge on crime and deviance can indeed help us make a difference in our larger society.


Think Like a Sociologist

The countries of Denmark and the Netherlands offer a different way of treating criminals and dealing with crime. Those nations, like most others in Western Europe, think prison should be used only as a last resort for the most violent and most incorrigible offenders. They recognize that incarceration is very expensive and much more costly than other ways of dealing with offenders. These concerns have led Denmark, the Netherlands, and other Western European nations to favor alternatives to imprisonment for the bulk of their offenders, such as the widespread use of probation, community service, and other kinds of community-based corrections. Studies indicate that these alternatives may be as effective as incarceration in reducing recidivism (repeat offending) and cost much less than incarceration. If so, an important lesson from these countries is that it is possible to keep society safe from crime without using the costly get-tough approach that has been the hallmark of the U.S. criminal justice system since the 1970s. (Bijleveld & Smit, 2005; Dammer & Fairchild, 2006)

Consider the solutions offered by Denmark and the Netherlands, as well as the list of suggestions above.

What is your perspective on the get-tough approach and mass incarceration?

What other solutions can you think of to reduce the U.S. prison population?


Section 6.4 References

Beckett, K. and T. Sasson.  (2004). The politics of injustice: Crime and punishment in America. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Bijleveld, C. C. J. H. and  P. R. Smit.  (2005). Crime and punishment in the Netherlands, 1980–1999. Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, 33, 161–211.

Bureau of Justice Statistics Home Page. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm/content/content/data/index.cfm?ty=pbse&sid=40

Clear, T. R. (2007). Imprisoning communities: How mass incarceration makes disadvantaged neighborhoods worse. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Currie, E. (1998). Crime and punishment in America. New York, NY: Henry Holt.

Dammer, H. R. and E. Fairchild.  (2006). Comparative criminal justice systems. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Espinoza, M., N.D. Porter, N. Ghandnoosh, A. Nellis and J. Rovner.  (2021, December 16). The sentencing project. The Sentencing Project. Retrieved from https://www.sentencingproject.org/.

Greenwood, P. W. (2006). Changing lives: Delinquency prevention as crime-control policy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Jacobson, M. (2005). Downsizing prisons: How to reduce crime and end mass incarceration. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Kaeble, D. and M. Cowhig.  (2018). Correctional Populations in the U.S., 2016. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cpus16.pdf

Piquero, A. R. and A. Blumstein.  (2007). Does incapacitation reduce crime? Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 23, 267–285.

Pratt, T. C. (2008). Addicted to incarceration: Corrections policy and the politics of misinformation in the United States. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Raphael, S. and M. A. Stoll.  (2009). Why are so many Americans in prison? In S. Raphael & M. A. Stoll (Eds.), Do prisons make us safer? The benefits and costs of the prison boom (pp. 27–72). New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Sawyer, Wendy and Peter Wagner.  (2020, March 24). Mass incarceration: The whole pie 2020. Prison Policy Initiative. Retrieved from https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2020.html.

The Sentencing Project. (2021, June 3).  Criminal justice facts. Retrieved from https://www.sentencingproject.org/criminal-justice-facts/.

Warren, J. (2009). One in 31: The long reach of American corrections. Washington, DC: Pew Center on the States.

Welsh, B. C. and D. P. Farrington, (Eds.). (2007). Preventing crime: What works for children, offenders, victims and places. New York, NY: Springer.

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