Public Choice

, Volume 180, Issue 3–4, pp 217–242 | Cite as

An empirical examination of institutions and cross-country incarceration rates

  • Daniel J. D’Amico
  • Claudia R. WilliamsonEmail author


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.


Prisons Incarceration Institutions Legal origins Communism 

JEL codes

K14 K33 P5 F55 



We thank the editor and an anonymous referee for helpful comments and suggestions. There is no funding to report.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Political Theory ProjectBrown UniversityProvidenceUSA
  2. 2.Mississippi State UniversityMississippi StateUSA

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