The Politics of Punishment in the War on Drugs: Race and Racial Language in Policy Shifts
Frost, Ann Christine
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In the 1970s and 1980s the United States government initiated what we call the "War on Drugs." Soon after, state governments began to enact new legislation imposing mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, and eliminating judicial discretion in imposing sentences. The mandatory sentences for many drug offenses resulted in huge rates of incarceration, and disparate impacts for minority offenders. After several years of sentencing under the new laws, many citizens, politicians, and judges became disenchanted with the harsh requirements and called for change. In arguing for reform many cited the costs that increased rates of incarceration had imposed on state budgets, and some criticized the disproportionate nature of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenses, while still others sought to publicize the harsh impacts of the laws on minorities and other offenders. Notably, however, most who called for reform failed to cite the disparate impacts the policies had on racial minorities as a reason for reform. Although the policies of the War on Drugs had actually resulted in far more disparity for blacks, this fact was not cited as a reason for reform. Instead, reference to race became implicit, and politicians relied on the budget crisis to engage public support and to successfully amend the laws. Since then some states have amended their drug laws to eliminate some of the previous mandatory sentences and restore judicial discretion. Some states, however, have declined to do so. This dissertation investigates how race continued to be a factor in the policies of the War on Drugs, even though the rhetoric has shifted away from explicit references to race toward the budget crisis imposed by the harsh sentencing policies.
- Political science