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In-Depth Interview: Cornell Prof. Peter Enns Explores the Causes of Our “Incarceration Nation”

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Cornell U. Prof. Peter K. Enns is an expert on incarceration and public opinion, and his new book studies the influence of public attitudes on prison policy.The book is Incarceration Nation: How the United States Became the Most Punitive Democracy in the World, just published in soft cover by Cambridge University Press.

Enns directs the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and the Cornell Institute for Social Science project on the Causes, Consequences and Future of Mass Incarceration.

In this lively exchange, Enns sketches the trends in public opinion polls related to crime and punishment going back to 1953, and shows that the peak of punitive attitudes was about 1996.  He reports that we are currently at a low point, which permits political leaders to reform the system and reduce incarceration within the public’s “zone of aquiescence” regarding these policies.  He warns that an increase in the crime rate, coupled with typical media coverage could shift the trend fairly quickly.

Enns analyzes decades of data, weighs the influence of media and political leadership, seeking to discover the underlying causes of policy shifts.  While acknowledging there’s no clear conclusion, he believes that public attitudes drive elected leaders to pursue tougher–or, for now, more lenient–laws and policies.

In a case study, we talk about the media and political context that led to California’s passage of the 3 Strikes Law in 1993.  We also discuss PBC’s conversations over many years about incarceration with California Gov. Jerry Brown, who is leading an initiative this year to change the bad sentencing laws that he signed in 1977.