Why do imprisonment rates vary between different countries?

A multitude of factors influence imprisonment rates, and it would be near impossible to administer an effective analysis encompassing all variables. This essay will therefore utilise Lacey et al.’s (2017) framework of factors, broadly focusing on three core reasons why imprisonment rates vary: crime rates, cultural dynamics and political economy. On balance, it is argued that imprisonment rates are influenced to the greatest extent by political economy, as this is inherently entangled with the other factors.

Crime Rates

Perhaps the most obvious explanation of imprisonment rates lies in crime itself. Crime, though a superficially straightforward concept, is elusive as to its meaning and statistics on crime do not necessarily illuminate the rich nuanced narratives of crime itself. Nonetheless, crime and imprisonment rates are intrinsically connected, with imprisonment as a necessary corollary of certain crimes in almost every jurisdiction. For instance, a study of US data by Enns (2016) demonstrates that violent crime rates are closely correlated with imprisonment rates, development of penal policy and public levels of punitiveness. It is important to realise, however, that much empirical research on imprisonment rates comes from Western countries with greater financial and academic ability to conduct such research. Nevertheless, imprisonment rates are rising globally, with the prison population of England and Wales quadrupling between 1900 and 2017. Therefore, whilst crime is a notoriously “slippery concept” (Reiner, 2016), it constitutes an important determinant of penal policy, which in turn influences imprisonment rates. 

Cultural Dynamics

Whilst difficult to demarcate, cultural explanations focus on symbolic and communicative dimensions of both punishment and policymaking, helping to explain differences between countries regarding attitudes to imprisonment. Lacey et al. observe how longstanding attachments within particular groups to specific values and identities “shape the perception of the fairness…of penal policies” which potentially explains the “differences in penal policy between countries with relatively similar crime problems and political and economic systems”.  A good example of the phenomenon are the small communities fostering a culture of solidarity and mutual responsibility in what is called ‘Nordic exceptionalism’ by Pratt and Erkisson (2013). They argue that these distinctive cultural beliefs tangibly influence popular attitudes about punishment. Christie (2004) similarly argues that tight-knit communities are less punitive due to higher levels of trust. Historically populations in the Nordic and Western European countries have been rather ethnically and religiously homogenous, and this focus of collective interests lessens the need for “dramatic and highly symbolic spectacles of punishment” (Pratt, 2008) as a way of reaffirming power of the state.

Other cultural factors include the influence of core religion on penal practice. For example, predominantly Muslim countries operate under Shari’ah law, and even the UK has only recently abolished the Christian offence of ‘blasphemy’, demonstrating varying religious attitudes towards crimes punishable by imprisonment. Another cultural determinant involves “the vertigo of late modernity” (Young, 2007) which has induced feelings of insecurity around crime. Garland (2001) recognises the problems of social order that late modernity brings as a “culture of control”. Such feelings of fear can be exacerbated by the punitiveness of governments, with Tonry (2010) illustrating this by reference to the Blair government’s focus on crime and antisocial behaviour. This vicious cycle may spiral into harsher penal practice and, consequently, higher imprisonment rates.

This raises an interesting question surrounding cultural dynamics – is culture politically driven, or does it shape political choices? It seems that the association of political choices with rates of imprisonment is more to do with the cultural attitudes towards deviant citizens, which are embodied in the political economy. Cultural determinants alone fall short of adequately explaining the precise causal mechanisms through which cultural differences are sustained over time to shape imprisonment rates and therefore, the most prominent explanation for varying imprisonment rates is undeniably political economy. 

Political Economy

Political economy broadly refers to the interrelationship between governments, public policy and individuals. At a state level, government practice and policy impacts imprisonment rates. Yet, at an institutional level, factors such as voting systems, welfare arrangements and the impartiality of the judiciary can also influence imprisonment rates. As Christie (2004) notes, “the size of the prison population…is also a result of…major political ideas”. The simple structure of a political system can influence the ways in which perceived anxiety about crime or insecurity manifest. For instance, Crewe (2016) notes that “popular anxiety about crime” in the USA and UK, “mark[s] out penal policy as a platform on which politicians…may appeal to undecided voters”. This can lead to a “law-and-order arms race” (Lacey, 2008), resulting in an ever more punitive system and higher imprisonment rates. In contrast to competitive politics, Lijphart (1999) notes that consensus polities mean less ‘tough talk’ for political gain, and more respect for intellectual opinion, which helps safeguard penal policy from populist punitive sentiment and thus, high imprisonment rates.

Regarding international political economies, Cavadino and Dignan (2006) studied 12 countries, classifying them into four groups: neo-liberalist, conservative corporatist, social democratic and oriental corporatist. They observed “almost watertight dividing lines between the different types of political economy as regards imprisonment rates in these countries”. Notwithstanding the USA which has a very different penal system to others globally, the study demonstrates that neo-liberalist countries have higher rates of imprisonment. For instance, per 100,000 people in 2003-4, England and Wales imprisoned 142 and New Zealand incarcerated 168. Contrastingly, conservative corporatist countries, spearheaded by Germany and France imprison around 96 and 91 respectively. Even lower still were social democratic political economies, such as Sweden, with 75. Finally, oriental corporatism seen in Japan holds a rate of 58. Collectively, this suggests that political economy has a direct influence on imprisonment rates.

Explanations of such results tend to recognise that neo-liberal states are more punitive. Crewe (2016) even implies that neo-liberalism is criminogenic – that the political economy begets higher crime rates, meaning that there are more criminals to imprison. Institutional explanations exacerbate this, as welfare is minimalist and material inequality results in social exclusion of many who are marginalised by markets they cannot affordably operate in, such as labour and housing (Lash and Urry, 1994). In contrast, conservative corporatist represents a communitarian ethos which seeks to integrate all citizens within the nation. Greater emphasis on rehabilitation and resocialisation thus means less room for punitive measures such as imprisonment. Greenberg (2001) even suggests an inverse correlation between a country’s level of punishment a country’s degree of ‘corporatism’. Overall, there is strong empirical evidence to support the notion that the greater the inequality in a society, the higher the level of punishment (Beckett and Western, 2001). Features of political systems are therefore conducive to supporting socio-economic policies that make it easier for governments to pursue inclusionary or punitive penal policies, and therefore imprisonment rates are to a certain extent, a matter of political choice based on a country’s political economy.

Overall, whilst there are numerous determinants influencing imprisonment rates, political economy seems to be the most salient in explaining differences between various, but often similar, countries. Ultimately, politicians and decision-makers have the most control over their responses to crime rates and cultural dynamics, and therefore, to a certain extent, imprisonment rates are always subtlety a matter of political choice. 


The writer, Roshni Ranasinghe-de Silva, is a double First Class graduate from the University of Cambridge and future trainee solicitor at Slaughter and May. She ranked 6th in her cohort of 205 students at University, coming top in her cohort for both Family Law and EU Law.

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