Republican States “Tough on Crime” but Soft on Results, New Study Shows



            As the election heats up, several predictable battle lines have already been drawn, clearly distinguishing between “Republican” and “Democratic” strongholds, with several “swing states” that could go either way.  While the subject of crime is not the hot issue it once was, a look at crime control policies and their effectiveness provides some interesting findings.  A new report by the Justice Policy Institute is revealing.

            Called “Swing States: Crime, Prisons and the Future of the Nation,” researchers Eric Lotke, Deborah Stromberg and Vincent Schiraldi examined several different measures of criminal justice and public safety ( They compared states considered “Republican” (e.g., Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Idaho, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Louisiana), “Democrat” (e.g., California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts), and “swing states” (e.g., Arizona, Florida, Missouri, Nevada).  It should be noted that the states included within each category was based upon an analysis by the New York Times on July 31 of this year, so that some “swing states” have changed by this time (e.g., Arizona is now Republican). 

            What they discovered showed convincingly that the more “liberal” Democratic states have experienced a larger drop in crime from 1993 to 2002 than the more “get tough” Republican states.

            Between 1993 and 2002, incarceration rates went up by 30% in Republican states, compared to an increase of about half that much (15.7%) in Democratic states.  Decreases in crime occurred all over the country in the past ten years, but especially in traditional Democratic states.  Thus, the crime rate went down by 37% in Democratic states, while it went down by 17% in Republican states.  Violent crime went down by 43% in Democratic states, compared to a decrease of 27% in Republican states.  In the “swing states” the incarceration rate went up by an average of 39%, while the crime rate went down by 19%. 

            Looking at expenditures on criminal and civil justice systems, the authors found that in Republican states went up by a greater amount than in Democratic states (57% v. 32%).  In swing states, expenditures went up by an average of 58%.  In other words, Democratic states appeared to have received more bang for their bucks.

            One variable often linked to high rates of crime is dropping out of school.  The authors of this study examined the proportion of children who drop out of school in Democratic and Republican states. They found that in Democratic states, the number of high school dropouts declined by 8.3% between 1991 and 2001, while there was a modest increase of 1% in Republican states.  Swing states saw an increase of 3%. 

            Perhaps the most telling statistic the study revealed was that concerning disenfranchisement of convicted felons (most states prohibit felons from casting a vote).  Using data from the year 2000, they found that in more than half of the “swing states” (specifically Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin) the number of those disenfranchised exceeded the margin of victory.  Overall, in Democratic states a total of 846,486 felons were disenfranchised, which represented 1.2% of all voters.  In Republican states, just over 2 million were disenfranchised, representing 3% of all voters.  (A recent scholarly study showed that had ex-felons been allowed to vote, Gore would have won the 2000 election. For details see:

            Disenfranchisement falls most heavily on blacks, and in 2000 almost 9% of blacks were disenfranchised in Republican states compared to 5.4% in Democratic states.  Among the swing states, 8.4% of black voters were disenfranchised.  In the key state of Florida 16% of black voters were disenfranchised (827,207), and this is where Bush won by a mere 537 votes, giving him the 27 electoral votes for that state. 

            It should be noted that according to the latest polls three of the “swing states” in this study are now solidly Republican: Arizona, Missouri and Ohio. Looking at how these current “swing states” voted in 2000, we find a mixed bag as far as increases in imprisonment rates are concerned and decreases in crime rates, and a correlation would be hard to find. 

For instance, Florida (Bush) experienced a one-fourth increase in incarceration rates and a decrease in the crime rate of just over one-third, while in Missouri (Bush) the incarceration rate went up by two-thirds accompanied by a modest drop in crime of about 10%.  In contrast, in Iowa (Gore) the incarceration rate increased by 72% along with a modest drop in crime of 10%, while Minnesota (Gore) had a 40% increase in their incarceration rate, but a crime drop of 19%.

Perhaps the most interesting contrast was between West Virginia (Bush) and Wisconsin (Gore): the former saw its incarceration rate jump up by 108% but a mere 1% drop in crime, while the latter had a 96% increase in incarceration rate with a 20% drop in crime.

            It is difficult to draw hard and fast conclusions from the data revealed in this study.  However, one thing seems clear: strongly Democratic states tend to have a somewhat better success at reducing crime than strongly Republican states.  It should also be noted that the South, with an extremely strong Republican voting record in the past four decades, has consistently had the highest rates of incarceration, the highest rates of violent crime, the most executions and the highest rates of disenfranchisement of black citizens. 

            Another indicator of the difficulty in drawing definitive conclusions is the contrast the authors of this report make between Ohio and Pennsylvania, which they stated are “moving in opposite directions when it comes to correctional policy.”  Ohio, they note, has been very supportive of community sanctions for non-violent criminals, resulting in a decrease in the number of prisoners during the past five years.  Pennsylvania, in contrast, has gone in the opposite direction, allowing fewer offenders community-based options, resulting in an increase in imprisonment in recent years.  Ohio is now in the Republican camp, with Pennsylvania still undecided.  Then there is the contrast between Arizona (now in the Republican camp) and its neighborhood New Mexico (still a swing state).  Arizona passed Proposition 200 in 1996 which directed that drug offenders be diverted to treatment programs instead of prison, resulting in a much lower increase in incarceration than New Mexico, which has not chosen the route taken by Arizona.

            There’s an old saying that applies here: in science, especially the social sciences, there is no such thing as a perfect correlation.  What the authors of this study have done, however, is emphasized that there is at least some correlation between voting patterns and crime policies, and their successes.  It is something to think about before you go to the polls this November.


September 21, 2004


© 2004 by Randall G. Shelden. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.