The Political Economy of Incarceration in the U.S. South, 1915-1920

Christopher Muller, University of California, Berkeley
Daniel Schrage, University of Southern California

A large theoretical literature in sociology connects increasing rates of incarceration to contractions in the labor market. But evidence for the economic causes of incarceration is relatively scarce. We use a shock to the southern agricultural economy to study the political economy of incarceration in the U.S. South. From 1915 to 1920, an agricultural pest called the boll weevil spread across the state of Georgia, causing cotton yields and rates of tenancy and sharecropping to fall. The infestation reduced the demand for black agricultural workers and released many African Americans from a condition of economic dependence. Using archival records of prison admissions in Georgia, we find that the boll weevil infestation increased the rate at which African Americans were incarcerated for property crimes. The effects for whites and for incarceration for homicide were much smaller and not statistically significant.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 264. Gender, Race and the Criminal Justice System