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The incarceration revolution of the late twentieth century fueled ongoing research on the relationship between rates of incarceration and crime, unemployment, education, and other social indicators. In this research, the variable intended to capture the level of confinement in society was conceptualized and measured as the rate of incarceration in state and federal prisons and county jails. This, however, fails to take account of other equally important forms of confinement, especially commitment to mental hospitals and asylums.

When the data on mental hospitalization rates are combined with the data on imprisonment rates for the period 1928 through 2000, the incarceration revolution of the late twentieth century barely reaches the level of aggregated institutionalization that the United States experienced at mid-century. The highest rate of aggregated institutionalization during the entire period occurred in 1955 when almost 640 persons per 100,000 adults over age 15 were institutionalized in asylums, mental hospitals, and state and federal prisons.

Equally surprising, the trend for aggregated institutionalization reflects a mirror image of the national homicide rate during the period 1928 through 2000. Using a Prais-Winsten regression model that corrects for autocorrelation in time-series data, and holding constant three leading structural covariates of homicide, this Article finds a large, statistically significant, and robust relationship between aggregated institutionalization and homicide rates.

These findings underscore, more than anything, how much institutionalization there was at mid-century. The implications are both practical and theoretical. As a practical matter, empirical research that uses confinement as a value of interest should use an aggregated institutionalization rate that incorporates mental hospitalization rates. At a theoretical level, these findings suggest that it may be the continuity of confinement – and not just the incarceration explosion – that needs to be explored and explained.


Law | Law Enforcement and Corrections