An Empirical Examination of Institutions and Cross-Country Incarceration Rates

Originally published in Public Choice

Research converges upon institutional explanations for why some countries incarcerate more prisoners than others. The types of institutions that are particularly important are less well understood. This paper investigates empirically the associations between economic, political and legal institutions and incarceration rates in a large cross-section of countries. Using data from 2001 to 2011, we find that countries with smaller prison populations have civil legal origins and fewer years under communism. Our findings also suggest that economic institutions and other economic factors related to economic performance do not correlate with incarceration rates. Collectively, the results indicate that institutions cannot be considered in isolation, but need to be examined simultaneously, with a focus on historical, political and legal factors.

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