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The Reagan Administration dramatically escalated the war on drugs even though drug use had been falling for most illicit substances since 17 For much of the 1970s, New York’s new drug laws had only a modest impact on the state’s incarceration rate, thanks to “selective pragmatic enforcement” by local criminal justice authorities (Weiman and Weiss, 2009, p. 95). That situation changed in the 1980s and 1990s as incoming mayor Ed Koch of New York City sought to “retake the streets” and made a highly publicized shift toward “quality-of-life” policing in 1979, and Governor Hugh Cary promised significant additional support for prison construction, state prosecutors, local law enforcement, and a new joint state-local initiative to target drug trafficking. As a result, the proportion of all inmates serving time in New York State prisons for felony drug convictions soared as the Rockefeller laws belatedly became a major driver of the state’s prison population (Weiman and Weiss, 2009).

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The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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1979.18 After President Reagan launched his own version of the war on drugs in 1982 and renewed the call to arms 4 years later, public opinion surveys in 1986 indicated that fewer than 2 percent of the American public considered illegal drugs to be the most important problem facing the country (Beckett, 1997, p. 25). Surveys conducted 2 years later, however, showed that a majority of the public now identified drug abuse as a leading problem (Roberts et al., 2003). The shift in public opinion was partly a consequence of the enactment of tough new federal drug laws in 1986 and 1988, spurred by reports that crack cocaine had been introduced into urban drug markets.

These new drug laws resulted in historically unprecedented rates of imprisonment for drug use and possession (Reuter, 1992; Thompson, 2010).

People convicted of drug offenses grew to make up about one-fifth of all state prison inmates and nearly two-thirds of all federal inmates by 1997 (Mumola and Karberg, 2006, p. 4). Since then, the portion of state prisoners serving time for drug offenses has stabilized at about the same rate, while the portion of federal inmates serving time for drug offenses has declined somewhat, to about one-half (Carson and Sabol, 2012, p. 1).

In the 1980s, some Democratic politicians notably joined the war on drugs effort that had been initiated by the Republican administration in the 1970s. The two parties embarked on periodic “bidding wars” to ratchet up penalties for drugs and other offenses. Wresting control of the crime issue became a central tenet of up-and-coming leaders of the Democratic Party represented by the center-right Democratic Leadership Council, most notably “New Democrat” Bill Clinton (Stuntz, 2011, pp. 239-240; Murakawa, forthcoming, Chapter 5; Schlosser, 1998; Campbell, 2007).19 Statistical analyses indicate that Republican Party control, especially at the state level, generally has been associated with larger expansions of the prison population (Western, 2006; Jacobs and Helms, 2001; Smith, 2004;

Jacobs and Carmichael, 2001).20 However, it is also the case that some leading Democrats—including Governor Mario Cuomo of New York in the 1980s and early 1990s (Schlosser, 1998), Governor Ann Richards of Texas in the early 1990s (Campbell, 2007), and President Clinton in the 1990s— presided over large increases in prison populations or the adoption of harsh sentences. As criminal justice policy in the United States continued to rely more heavily on incarceration, official party positions on crime control differed less and less. For example, Murakawa (forthcoming) observes that the

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and other similar committee findings in this chapter.

20 However, Greenberg and West (2001, p. 634) found that “the party of the state’s governor was essentially irrelevant” in explaining prison growth from 1971 to 1991.

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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Democratic Party platforms of the 1980s and 1990s invoked law-and-order rhetoric that differed little from what Richard Nixon had expressed two decades earlier, and extolled the long list of harsh penal policies the party had been instrumental in enacting.21


As shown above, the role of public opinion in penal policy is complex, and public concern about crime and support for punitive crime control policy does not necessarily rise and fall in tandem with fluctuations in the crime rate (Beckett, 1997). Important intervening variables include the kind of crime-related initiatives that are promoted by politicians, the nature and amount of media coverage of crime, and the interplay of racial and ethnic conflict and concerns.

Consequently, crime-related public opinion can be volatile. Public opinion surveys and electoral outcomes demonstrate clear public support for certain hard-line policies, such as “three strikes” laws and increased use of incarceration (Cullen et al., 2000). But support for such punitive policies often is soft and therefore highly malleable, partly because public knowledge about actual criminal justice practices and policies is so limited (Cullen et al., 2000; Roberts and Stalans, 1998). For example, the public consistently overestimates the level of violent crime and the recidivism rate (Gest, 2001).

Perhaps because people in the United States and elsewhere possess limited knowledge of how the criminal justice system actually works, they generally believe the system is far more lenient toward lawbreakers than it actually is (Roberts, 1997; Roberts and Stalans, 2000; Roberts et al., 2003).

Public opinion surveys that use simplistic approaches tend to reinforce the assumption that the U.S. public is unflinchingly punitive (Cullen et al., 2000). They also mask significant differences in the perspectives of certain demographic groups—especially African Americans and whites—on issues of crime and punishment. For example, African Americans are more likely than whites to perceive racial bias in the criminal justice system (Bobo and Thompson, 2006, 2010; Peffley and Hurwitz, 2010). And as noted above, African Americans also are traditionally less likely to support harsh punishments for violent crime. Moreover, some evidence suggests that public officials and policy makers misperceive or oversimplify public opinion on crime, focusing on Americans’ punitive beliefs but deemphasizing or 21 Although the Republican Party’s southern strategy promoted harsher crime policy and the Republican administrations of Presidents Nixon and Reagan encouraged tougher drug enforcement and sentencing, the committee members varied in their views of the role played by Democratic Party policy makers in this process.

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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ignoring their support for rehabilitative goals (Gottfredson and Taylor, 1987; Cullen et al., 2000).

The influence of race on public opinion about crime and punishment is particularly complex, as discussed in Chapter 3. Research on racial attitudes suggests a decline in overt racism—or what Unnever (2013) calls “Jim Crow racism”—founded in beliefs about the innate inferiority of blacks and in adamant support for racial segregation. Survey research also shows that people generally believe racial discrimination is wrong and that they almost universally endorse norms of racial equality (see, e.g., Tonry, 2009a; Thernstrom and Thernstrom, 1997; Mendelberg, 2001; Bobo, 2001). Nonetheless, there are large and in some cases widening gaps in white, black, and Hispanic public opinion on racial issues. Nearly 50 percent of white Americans surveyed in 2008 said they believed blacks had achieved racial equality, compared with only 11 percent of blacks. Nearly three-quarters of blacks surveyed agreed that racism is still a major problem, compared with more than half of Latinos and about one-third of whites (Dawson, 2011, pp. 12-13, 148). Racial bias often is revealed implicitly as well. As discussed in Chapter 3, results from the Implicit Association Test (IAT), designed to measure people’s implicit attitudes, demonstrate consistent bias against African Americans (Greenwald and Krieger, 2006).

Although overt racial hostility is less pervasive than it was years ago, latent and often unconscious stereotypes and prejudices still influence political and policy choices in subtle but powerful ways. Such subtle but powerful prejudice may play an important role in public policy preferences on crime and punishment. For example, results of both experimental and survey research suggest that racial resentment is a strong predictor of whites’ support for capital punishment (Unnever et al., 2008; Bobo and Johnson,

2004) and that whites’ support for the death penalty is undiminished even when they are reminded of racial disproportionality and bias in its application (Peffley and Hurwitz, 2010; Bobo and Johnson, 2004). Research also shows that racial prejudice is associated with increased support for punitive penal policies (Johnson, 2008).

Deeply held racial fears, anxieties, and animosities likely explain the resonance of coded racial appeals concerning crime-related issues, such as the infamous “Willie Horton ad” aired during the 1988 presidential election (see, e.g., Mendelberg, 2001). But racial indifference and insensitivity—as distinguished from outright racial hostility—may help explain the long-term public support for criminal justice policies that have had an adverse and disproportionate impact on blacks (and Latinos). For example, policing practices with large racially disparate impacts, such as the war on drugs and New York City’s “stop-and-frisk” policies, are much more likely to be supported by whites than by blacks. In 2011, 85 percent of the approximately 685,000 stop-and-frisks conducted by the New York City Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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police involved people who were black or Latino. In recent polling, whites approved of stop-and-frisk policies at more than twice the rate of blacks (57 percent versus 25 percent) (Quinnipiac University, 2012).22 In short, a sizable body of research supports the thesis that public opinion about crime and punishment is highly racialized. Whites tend to associate crime and violence with being black and are more likely than blacks to support harsh penal policies. Whites who harbor racial resentments are especially likely to endorse tougher penal policies and to reject claims that the criminal justice system discriminates against blacks. Blacks are much more likely than whites to say the criminal justice system is racially biased and much less likely to endorse capital punishment and other tougher sanctions (Unnever, 2013).


Trends in crime rates and public opinion had much larger effects on criminal justice policy in the United States, compared with other Western countries, because they interacted with and were filtered through specific institutional, cultural, and political contexts that facilitated the growth in incarceration. As discussed in detail in Chapter 3, during the decades-long rise in imprisonment, determination of sentencing and other penal policies increasingly became the domain of the legislative branches of government.

Legislators gained power over sentences from the executive branch by, among other things, eliminating parole, limiting commutation powers, and reducing early release programs. They also gained power over the judicial branch by, among other things, eliminating indeterminate sentencing, setting mandatory minimum sentences, and enacting truth-in-sentencing legislation. These shifts allowed the more populist impulses in the United States to have direct impacts on sentencing and other criminal justice policies. The most vivid example of this—what some have called the “democratization of punishment”—is the direct enactment of more punitive measures through ballot initiatives, most notably the three strikes ballot initiative in California (Barker, 2009; Zimring et al., 2001; HoSang, 2010).

Compared with the criminal justice systems of many other developed countries, the U.S. system is more susceptible to the influence of “short-term 22 As noted above, studies show that blacks who are stopped and frisked are less likely than whites to be in possession of guns or other contraband and are no more likely to be arrested.

Because so many more blacks than whites are stopped in the first place, however, many more blacks are taken into police custody as a result of being stopped (Center for Constitutional Rights, 2009). The racial gap in support of stop-and-frisk did not keep a federal judge from ruling in Floyd v. New York (2013) that the policy violated the constitutional rights of minorities and from recommending a series of reforms (including a monitor) to oversee changes. This controversial ruling had been stayed and was under appellate review at the time this report was being written.

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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emotionalism” and partisan and interest group politics (Gottschalk, 2006;

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