Behind Bars and Ballots: The Link Between Democracy, Development, and Incarceration

Behind Bars and Ballots: The Link Between Democracy, Development, and Incarceration

. 9 min read

Dostoevsky once wrote that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Although certainly an oversimplification, incarceration remains a crucial barometer for understanding societies. The debate typically revolves around the role of prisons and tends to compare the American and Nordic models.

The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates globally, while Nordic countries are the inverse, having among the lowest incarceration rates, with the former said to prioritize retribution and the latter rehabilitation.

Although the global spectrum of approaches to incarceration does not comprise exclusively the American and Nordic models, there is a lack of comprehensive discussion that extends beyond them. A focus often tends to be on political prisoners, who receive disproportionate attention due to their inherent controversy. However, when it comes to the average inmate, there is a general assumption that countries, for whatever reason, handle crime differently, leading to variations in incarceration rates. Consequently, there is a limited inclination to delve deeper into analyzing and attributing these differences.

Thus, this article will examine disparities in incarceration rates around the world and attempt to explore the underlying macro trends that may cause one country to have a higher incarceration rate than another. The research examined several key indicators of societal development across 159 countries and modeled their relations to the World Prison Brief’s Prison Population Rate per 100,000 (PPR, updated monthly). Indicators include the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index (2022), the Human Development Index (HDI, 2021), Mean Years of Schooling (2021), GNI per capita (2021), and the Gini index (measuring wealth inequality, 2014-2022).

The indicators should all be intuitive, but, just in case, using the Democracy Index as an example, countries ranked 0-4 on the index are labeled authoritarian; 4-6, hybrid regimes; 6-8, flawed democracies; and 8-10, full democracies. For example, Uruguay is ranked at 8.91, the US is ranked at 7.85, Morocco is ranked at 5.04, and China is ranked at 1.94. These indices are objective and recent measurements in their categories. A few caveats in the article can be found here.

PPR vs. Democracy Index, HDI, and Mean Years of Schooling

The theory of democracy is predicated on the belief that a functional democracy is accompanied by a robust and impartial justice system, which in turn reduces the likelihood of arbitrary imprisonment lacking due process. This theory typically envisions authoritarian regimes capriciously and indiscriminately locking up anyone who vexes them. Such a hypothesis leads to thinking that a higher degree of democracy will correlate with a lower incarceration rate.However, the below graph compares PPR to the Democracy Index. R2, a measure ranging from 0-1 that represents the correlation between two variables, equals 0, meaning that there is no correlation. In other words, a country’s Democracy Index has no bearing on its incarceration rate.

Concerning HDI, prisons are infrastructure. Thus, the more developed a country becomes, the greater their capacity to incarcerate their citizens at a sustainable cost. At a certain level of development, though, the capability to construct and maintain more prisons eclipses the proportion of people a given government seeks to incarcerate. Additionally, governments may not necessarily want to imprison more of their citizens, even if they have the ability to do so. That said, examining the relationship between PPR and HDI, development, too, has no observable relationship to incarceration rates.

Regarding Mean Years of Schooling, a near consensus asserts that more schooling leads to less prison, and data in the United States supports this. However, this trend is not mirrored on an international level, where more years of schooling, if anything, is correlated with slightly higher incarceration rates. As seen below, the relationship between PPR and Mean Years of Schooling is almost identical to the above graph, again essentially negligible.

Therefore, PPR ostensibly has no meaningful relationship with levels of schooling, development, or democracy. The key to uncovering the relationship between these variables, however, is to group countries by Democracy Index. Democratic and undemocratic regimes tend to have fundamentally different objectives for their citizens, so the ways that they exploit overall development and the education of their citizens diverge considerably. By arranging states in democracy-specific categories, a clearer picture emerges, where the ways in which the indicators are correlated to PPR are actually contingent on the degree to which a state is democratic.

PPR vs. HDI, subset by Democracy Index

The results were striking. In authoritarian countries with a Democracy Index of 0-4, a higher HDI correlates with a higher incarceration rate. A similar trend occurs within hybrid regimes (a Democracy Index of 4-6), where more developed countries are strongly predicted to have higher incarceration rates. Thus, for authoritarian and hybrid regimes, a higher human development index is positively correlated with higher incarceration. There’s negligible correlation for flawed democracies. Only within full democracies does higher development all but guarantee lower incarceration rates, sharply differing from all other models.

Thus, as undemocratic countries become more developed, their incarceration rate tends to increase. As highly democratic countries become more developed, their incarceration rate tends to decrease.

PPR vs. Mean Years of Schooling, subset by Democracy Index

Again, it is clear that among full democracies, increases in years of schooling leads to lower incarceration rates. Regarding authoritarian countries, an opposite trend existed, where more schooling leads to higher incarceration. It’s important to note that these charts were expected to be similar to the charts visualizing HDI, since HDI comprises life expectancy, GNI per capita, and mean years of schooling.

Gini Coefficient

A notable pattern exists only among full and flawed democracies where a high Gini coefficient (higher wealth inequality) is positively correlated with a higher incarceration rate. Thus, more wealth equality in such countries leads to lower incarceration. The correlation for full democracies is highest, as seen below. Given the strong correlation, the differences in wealth inequality measured by the Gini coefficient may largely account for the differences in incarceration rates within full democracies, meaning that citizens who experience systemic and sustained poverty are disproportionately imprisoned. Furthermore, if a given full democracy was to become more economically equal, it is likely that the incarceration rate would decrease.

Democracy and Incarceration: Revisited

But why does the correlation between Mean Years of Schooling or HDI and Incarceration Rate depend so heavily on the democratic nature of a country?

Undemocratic Regimes

There are likely two causes that help answer the above question. The first is that undemocratic regimes, by their very nature, must suppress the people to remain in control. Other outlets for political dissent are diminished, and often entirely new sets of laws concerning freedom of expression are established. Dissent and criticism of authority are seen as a threat to power and become criminal offenses. In order to stay in power, therefore, undemocratic regimes often incarcerate their opponents. Additionally, such countries often lack transparency, accountability, judicial oversight, and due process, meaning that it is easy to lock people up, and, crucially, to keep them locked up.

When an undemocratic country develops, its institutions strengthen, and the government tends to become more powerful and centralized. It gains the sustained ability to monitor and incarcerate larger proportions of the civilian population. Furthermore, as the capability for surveillance and detention increases, the regime’s tolerance for dissent and protest decreases correspondingly. Thus, the more developed an undemocratic regime becomes, the higher its incarceration rate.

It is more than likely that the leaders of undeveloped undemocratic countries seek the incarceration of their political opponents, dissidents, and ordinary criminals with a passion equal to their developed counterparts. Many such countries thus have drastically overpopulated prisons. However, they lack the institutions, resources, technology, and centralized power to monitor and uproot threats to their control with such efficiency. This may be precisely why such countries are so unstable. They consistently devote unsustainable quantities of their limited resources to maintaining power, inhibiting any development, and trapping the country in a vicious cycle of underdevelopment, frustration, and popular resistance.

The second reason why conditioning on democracy significantly influences PPR as a function of development or education results from fluctuations in HDI and Mean Years of Schooling in undemocratic countries. As the overall population in undemocratic countries becomes more educated, wealthier, and healthier, their objectives begin to shift from essential to representational. Political power is a byproduct of economic power, so, as the civilian body amasses latent political power, they may attempt to undermine the dominance of the ruling party, perhaps even inadvertently. Concurrently, the ruling party may become uncomfortable as the balance of power shifts away from them and attempt to consolidate their grasp on the state via extractive policies. Either way, dissatisfaction grows and tensions deepen as civilians prioritize obtaining civil rights and freedoms now that they are enabled to plan in the long term. The resultant government crackdown and political backlash then drives the increase in incarceration.

Regardless of whether the brunt of the increase in incarceration in developed authoritarian regimes is driven by their enhanced capacity for surveillance and incarceration, or by the population’s civil aspirations that grow in tandem with quality of life, or some other factor altogether, there is a clear correlation between undemocratic regimes becoming more developed and educated and incarcerating ever higher proportions of the civilian population.

Full and Flawed Democracies

The correlation between HDI and PPR vanishes when applied to flawed democracies and clearly re-emerges–finally negatively–when applied to full democracies. Such countries, especially full democracies, tend to prioritize human rights, civil liberties, and the rule of law. In full democracies, as illustrated through the Gini coefficient, the emphasis on social welfare, education, and equal opportunity likely contributes to a lower likelihood of individuals engaging in criminal activities. Critically, in full democracies, the utilization of a country's development overwhelmingly centers around improving the well-being of its people, as they possess the authority to shape policies and decisions that aim to enhance healthcare, education, and foster opportunities for societal growth. Thus, the increase of the HDI and Mean Years of Schooling in a full democracy is predicted to correlate with a decrease in its incarceration rate.

On the other hand, flawed democracies exhibit fluctuating degrees of challenges in terms of governance, human rights, and the rule of law. The medley of issues plaguing this motley crew–such as political instability, corruption, or ineffective justice systems–explain why such countries have varying incarceration rates that are not correlated to HDI or Mean Years of Schooling. Furthermore, despite having no correlation with indicators, flawed democracies have the highest average incarceration rate of all categories, though also tend to be significantly more developed than both authoritarian states and hybrid regimes, which may help account for the difference. Within such countries, higher wealth inequality, as measured by the Gini index, is loosely correlated with higher incarceration rates. Considerable political willpower is required to enact robust welfare systems since their product–a more equal society–may be perceived as a threat by the powers that be: corrupt leaders, the elite, and a flawed justice system.

The very nature of flawed democracy means that mustering said political willpower is challenging since it results in undermining the status quo that functions in favor of the powerful, and efforts are therefore often stymied by special interests. A somewhat tenuous hypothesis, then, would state that such countries, due to political expediency, prefer to combat societal problems–relating to class, race, crime, land, etc.–with incarceration as opposed to addressing the root causes, leading to abnormally high incarceration and little else in common.

Human Development Index since 1990 with the world’s trend highlighted (UN Website). Since 1990, global HDI has increased by nearly 22 percent.


The world is currently becoming more developed (+22% over 30 years) yet shows no indication of becoming more democratic, although both democracy and development experienced a recent backslide during COVID. Vanessa Boese, a German political scientist, summed up the current situation as: “The level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2021 was down to 1989 levels. In 2021, autocracies were on the rise, harboring 70 percent of the world population, or 5.4 billion people. There was also a record number of countries autocratizing in 2021: 33 countries, home to 36 percent of the global population.”

Given how increased development and schooling in authoritarian countries and hybrid regimes positively correlate with higher incarceration rates, it is likely that the population is trending toward an era of higher incarceration on a global scale. While this article should absolutely not be perceived as advocating for undemocratic regimes to not educate their population or to not develop further, it is essential to understand how global trends may influence worldwide incarceration.