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Targeted for Diffusion? How the Use and Acceptance of Stereotypes Shape the Diffusion of Criminal Justice Policy Innovations in the American States


This article explores the diffusion of criminal justice policy in the American states. Drawing on policy design theory, I code newspaper coverage of 44 criminal justice policies adopted across state governments from 1960–2008, identifying the image and power of target populations—the group singled out for special treatment under law. I test whether electoral pressure leads governments to disproportionally emulate innovations that reinforce popular stereotypes regarding who is entitled to policy benefits or deserving of policy burdens. I find strong support for this theory: State governments are more likely to adopt innovations that extend benefits to strong, popular, and powerful target populations or that impose burdens on weak and politically marginalized groups. This bias can be explained by pressures for responsive policy making, as my findings indicate that it is the national salience of the crime problem—but not the competitiveness or timing of state elections—that influences state adoption of popular “law and order” policy innovations.

Corresponding author
Graeme Boushey is Assistant Professor, Political Science, University of California, Irvine, 3151 Social Science Plaza, Irvine, CA 92697–5100 (
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American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
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