Ethnic diversity, Ethnic Polarization, and Incarceration Rates: A Cross-national Study

Recent political rhetoric both in the U.S. and abroad has drawn renewed attention to racial and ethnic conflict, state power, and punishment. The salience of minority group conflict on incarceration is well established in theory and research in the U.S. This study explores whether racial/ethnic composition explains incarceration rates throughout the world, rather than being a peculiarity of the U.S. It also evaluates the functional form of these relationships. Analysis of up to 132 nations indicates that incarceration rates are significantly associated with ethnic diversity and ethnic polarization. The lowest incarceration rates are observed in countries with substantial homogeneity or substantial diversity. Incarceration rates are highest in countries with moderate diversity but high polarization—where a sizable minority population is present, approaching parity with a majority group. Minority group conflict may be a troublesome contributor to punishment throughout the world and is not a uniquely American phenomenon.

Published in Justice Quarterly.