Private Prisons in Public Discourse: Measuring Moral Legitimacy Public Deposited

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Abstract or Summary
  • New policies require legitimacy to survive. Prison privatization represents a policy challenged by initial perceptions of illegitimacy. In the 1980s, governments began to allow private firms to run correctional facilities, thereby shifting an inherently coercive, traditionally governmental function—incarceration—to the private sector. With data from 706 articles in four major American newspapers spanning 24 years, this article uses the concept of diversionary reframing (Freudenburg and Alario 2007) to measure and track the moral legitimacy of prison privatization across time and place. Findings suggest that initially high levels of moral legitimacy facilitated some states' adoption of private prisons, while initially low levels of moral legitimacy stunted the growth of prison privatization in other states. The article thus presents a novel way of measuring moral legitimacy, demonstrates how the concept may be used to help explain controversial public policy changes, and documents the cultural content of private prison debates in the United States.
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  • Burkhardt, B. C. (2014). Private Prisons in Public Discourse: Measuring Moral Legitimacy. Sociological Focus, 47(4), 279-298. doi:10.1080/00380237.2014.940264
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