Nicola Lacey and David Soskice


In previous work we have argued that exceptional US patterns of violent crime, punishment  and inequality in the late 20th Century are associated with its position as a radical outlier in the degree of local democracy, with policies on residential zoning, education, policing, prosecution and justice and transportation, all decided directly or indirectly by local voters, among whom white home owners are overrepresented.

In this paper, we consider two questions implied by this thesis:

First, Why local democracy in America? Here we focus on the institutional strategy of the Republican Ascendency in the 1870s on to provide the framework for industrialisation, following on from the failure of Reconstruction of the South.  Decentralisation of political power to major cities served to provide non-unionised (largely immigrant) labor to the developing giant Chandlerian corporations, subject to Supreme Court interpretations of the Interstate Commerce clause and presidential interpretations of the Clayburn and Sherman competition legislation. At the same time the Republican Ascendency allowed the exclusion of the Southern States, deeply hostile to industrialisation and its potentially transformative possibilities for African-Americans (but forcing the South to buy Northern manufactures by prohibiting internal tariffs). We contrast American experience with the very different British experience in which from a highly decentralised system in the early C19th, British political leaders developed a highly centralised system. We then set out the implications for the institutional development of the criminal process.

Second, why did the burden of violent crime and punishment fall disproportionately on African-Americans? Ironically the ‘original’ Americans and European first wave immigrants legislated tight immigration controls in the 1920s against the second wave immigrants from Italy, central Europe and Russian Jews, leading to massive Northern internal immigration of blacks from the South over the 1920 to 1970 period to meet the huge industrial demand for semi-skilled labor. Why did these migrants become ‘truly disadvantaged’ in the Northern cities, when the previous immigrant waves had become relatively integrated? We conclude tentatively that Southern state governments – absolved from industrialisation – prevented the education and development of political leadership of African-Americans which would have been necessary to underwrite second generation integration in the Northern cities. We finish with a contrast with the centralised polity of New Zealand, with Maoris a broadly similar proportion of the population and with a similar migration into Auckland also employment-demand driven, but with quite different results as far as violent crime and punishment were concerned.