War on Drugs and Mass Incarceration

The purpose of the law is to maintain societal order, while the criminal justice system operates to bring justice to the commission of crimes. In the United States, however, modern day criminal justice systems disproportionately disadvantage particular groups of people and undermine the intended functionality of law enforcement structures. This phenomenon of racial minority overrepresentation and overall prison population surge has endured since the 1970s.

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The declaration of the 70s “War on Drugs” was proceeded with mandatory minimum, amplified sentencing for drug crimes. Furthermore, a focus on retributive punishment for offenders supports the augmentation of prison populations. In addition to this shift, though, there appears a strong correlation between mass incarceration, primarily of black and Hispanic Americans, and the oppression of minority races that constitute a cycle of poverty, recidivism, and denial of civil rights. With the accumulation of disproportion in prisons, the criminal justice system evolved into a monolithic system of discrimination. The mass incarceration epidemic has metamorphosed into an institution of absolute control that examines and determines who will and will not succeed. Thus, “The War on Drugs” initiative that established excessively punitive responses to crime catalyzed mass incarceration functions that systematically oppress minorities in perpetual cycles of penury which cripples their ability to advance, similarly to its renowned precedents: Jim Crow and slavery.

Originating in the 1970s, the War on Drugs propelled the augmentation of the incarceration of predominantly African and Hispanic Americans through its criminalization of drug use and possession, at rates equating similarly amongst all races. The consequence of intensely punishing drug crimes is incarceration inflation: “approximately 45 percent of the growth in the total incarceration rate for these six offenses from 1980 to 1996 is attributable to the increased number of drug offenders” (Blumstein and Beck 21). Therefore, the culture of criminal justice evolved and shifted its attention heavily upon drug offenses, in which inmates elevated from “15 per 100,000 to 148 per 100,000 in 1980 to 1996” (Blumstein and Beck 20). Although the drug war plagues America nationally, it particularly affects minority races. Drug use and distribution is not exclusive to minority communities nor are African and Hispanic Americans more likely to engage in drug crimes compared to other races (Alexander 12), yet they are the disproportionately represented in prison: “though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32% of the US population, they comprised 56% of all incarcerated people in 2015” (NAACP). Although adolescents of the white race are more likely to engage in drug crimes (Alexander 12), their racial minority counterparts still constitute the majority in prison at the expense of “The War on Drugs.”

Following “The War on Drugs,” harsh, mandatory, and increasing sentences accompanied by penal justice disproportionately detain people of color at exponentially high rates. Emerging drug laws in combination with the government’s propensity to reassure the public of its mission to combat the drug “crisis” led to the implementation of sentencing manipulation: “we see a shift toward the use of determinate sentencing in a variety of forms and its attendant consequences on power relationships within the court system and…on public perceptions of issues of crime and punishment” (Garland 13). In the attempt to subdue political controversy, indeterminate sentencing and rehabilitative justice were dismantled in the pursuit of punishing drug offenders (Garland 13). As a result of sentencing policies, imprisonment rates constantly trend upwards regardless of crime rate fluctuations (Alexander 12). Furthermore, in addition to the federal opposition to drug crimes, states’ rights permitted discretion to disable or advance the drug war within its state jurisdiction. For example, states with historically discriminatory climates were permitted to exercise state rights in legal cases: “In explaining the prison boom in Arizona and other states, Lynch (2011) stresses how certain legal changes, including alterations in the penal code, federal case law (especially with regard to prisoners’ rights), and post sentencing laws and policies, were refracted through local norms and culture” (Gottschalk 485). Without regulation, state courts deliberately misrepresent and convict criminals with excessive sentences.

Such excessive sentencing especially influences minority groups when impoverished and residing in neighborhoods labeled as high-crime. While immersed in an environment deficient of adequate educational and employment opportunities, minorities often have no other recourse but unconventional means to survive (Martensen 217). Furthermore, the probability that black and Hispanic Americans reside under these conditions is substantial: “[they] comprise a disproportionate share of those living in poverty-stricken neighborhoods and communities where a range of socio-economic vulnerabilities contribute to higher rates of crime” (Peterson and Krivo). In fact, “62% of African Americans live in these circumstances” (Nellis). One contribution to this phenomenon is the inequity perpetuated by educational systems. Impoverished, predominantly black and Hispanic American schools demonstrate a lack of proficiency and help offered, as revealed by nationwide assessment results, the proportion which earn a diploma, and the number placed in special education for inefficiency is disproportionate to what is expected (Thomas 187). Similarly, “Hegemonic educational experiences that hinder achievement can result in disengagement from school, deviant behaviors, fewer opportunities in life, and difficulty earning a living wage (Midgette & Glenn, 1993, cited in Goodman & West-Olatunji, 2010)” (Thomas 187). Consequently, racial minorities are confined to what Wacquant (2008) refers to as “hyperghetto[s], which means ‘doubly segregated by race and class’ (62)” (Martensen 218), in which they are chronically disabled from utilizing opportunities to improve their current socioeconomic conditions.

The consequences of mass incarceration equate to a modern-day instillation of Jim Crow laws that institutionally discriminate against blacks and Hispanics in America. Upon conviction, criminals receive a label that retains their criminal history: “millions of people of color are now saddled with criminal records and legally denied the very rights that were supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement” (Alexander 15). Utilizing the criminal justice system to identify people of color as “criminals” essentially legalizes employment, housing, and voting discrimination (Alexander 11); “the emergence of the carceral state has helped to legitimize a new mode of ‘governing through crime’ that has spread well beyond the criminal justice system to other key institutions” (Gottschalk 488). Moreover, establishing negative conditions for minorities perpetuates poverty cycles and substandard living, “the problems plaguing poor communities of color, including problems associated with crime and rising incarceration rates, [are a] function of poverty and lack of access to quality education” (Alexander 9). Thus, the legacy of Jim Crow laws consequently impairs minorities through unequal disadvantages of incarceration that regenerates drug offenders after their release from prison.

“The War on Drugs” created the opportunity to legally discriminate against minorities by institutionally integrating race neutral policies with racially inequitable outcomes, portrayed through the overrepresentation of black and Hispanic demographics in prison. The current criminal justice system fails to fulfill the maintenance of societal order, because “from a crime control perspective, continued expansion is likely to lead to diminishing returns, as less serious offenders are incarcerated on average” (Garland 16). As history demonstrates, laws broadcasted as fair for all people can discreetly target specific groups, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses, which resulted in the preclusion of many African Americans from voting as they were recently liberated from slavery. Although half of a century has elapsed since the beginning of the change in rehabilitative justice and indeterminate sentencing, mass incarceration remains a phenomenon that operates to disadvantage particular groups. However, it raises the questions: what validates institutional oppression in criminal justice systems? Why does it maintain such a strong presence to this day? Additionally, why does discrimination relentlessly permeate American institutions under the veil of perceived fairness? Mass incarceration’s origins with “The War on Drugs” and modifications in sentencing structures, influences black and Hispanic Americans intergenerationally, as it cripples opportunities for employment and education, thus provoking a perpetual cycle of poverty.

A result of these impoverished neighborhoods is high police surveillance that forms distrust and conflict between residents and law enforcement. According to Anne Bonds, state governments have responded to crises in poverty-stricken areas: “the state has instead extended and redefined its role through surveillance, regulation, and incarceration” (133). They accomplish this increased monitoring by assigning more police officers to these neighborhoods; however, the consequences produce the opposite of its intended effect. Excessive policing of certain communities generates the impression that the residents are untrustworthy delinquents, thus creating a malicious atmosphere (Parker 406). Furthermore, Keith D. Parker asserts that the produced “resentment” has ramifications: “citizens of high-crime neighborhoods are more likely to view themselves and the police as natural adversaries in constant conflict with one another” (406). To reify this discontent within relationships between citizens living in impoverished neighborhoods and police officers, a study conducted by Parker reveals that African Americans filed more complaints regarding excessive police verbal and physical abuse, compared to their white counterparts (405). Therefore, the increased observation of those within poorer neighborhoods fails to properly address criminal activity.

Prison privatization opens the opportunity for economic benefit with its undercompensated labor, closely akin to its predecessor: slavery. Private prisons make money from the state, and instead of hiring outside workers for fair wages, they insource and exploit the prison population to complete work. Rather than publicly funded prisons, “Private firms pay the upfront construction costs and amortize them over a number of years. In this way, new prisons can be built without significantly affecting state taxes or budgets” (Aman and Greenhouse 378). Thus, this manifestation of power is invisible and creates unassuming change, which provokes little to no public resistance or attention. But the prison privatization industry’s cunning existence ensures that inmate laborers receive no protection from abuses: “Following a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, inmate workers are not allowed to organize, and, under South Carolina state law, have no private rights in the labor context” (Aman and Greenhouse 391). Based on the preceding evidence, prison laborers are treated as subordinates because they are denied the basic rights that free workers are guaranteed; much like slaves were precluded from protesting unfair and improper treatment, inmates cannot refute this system. This amplified emphasis on discipline is made apparent in federal budgeting for its criminal justice system: “In 2012 alone, the United States spent nearly $81 billion on corrections” (NAACP). Consequently, punitive structures are enhanced by prison privatization and evolve into mechanisms of essentially non-negotiable labor contracts.

Marginalized categorization reifies the criminal justice system as a power structure of absolute social control and degradation. Degradation is evident upon the completion of a prison sentence, in which the now-free individual is crippled by the drastic deprivation of rights. Because of one’s criminal record, “he may be ineligible for many federally funded health and welfare benefits, food stamps, public housing, and federal educational assistance…and he may no longer qualify for certain employment and professional licenses” (Roberts 1291). In addition to disabling its constituents, the criminal justice system asserts its domination of people through its non-causal relationship to crime rates. One of its functions, in the context of mass incarceration of the marginalized, is to exercise its control over people: “Western finds that the largest growth in crime rates actually predates the explosion in the prison population, clearly highlighting the disjuncture between crime and incarceration” (Bonds 133). In fact, transitioning large groups of people away from their communities “impedes the ability of families and other socializing groups, such as churches, social clubs, and neighborhood associations, to enforce informal social controls” (Roberts 1285). Subsequently, then, formal sanctioning by law enforcement becomes the priority, which forms a climate of subordination amongst members of high-crime neighborhoods. Just as Roberts portrays the focus to enforce its authority over disparaged groups, Gilmore and Loyd articulate the subtle intricacies of the criminal justice system: “this singular category of criminal, which has been ascribed to you, becomes the category that defines everything about you in terms of the social order in which this coercion takes place” (50).

Mass incarceration employs Foucauldian mechanisms of discipline; discreet, unverifiable, and invisible manifestations of power; into its institutions to politically, economically, and socially depress minorities in an intergenerational fashion. This phenomenon continues the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws, by oppressing marginalized groups of people, stifling their opportunities to achieve fundamental equity and equality to the white privilege in the United States. Anne Bonds asserts that the excessive imprisonment rates are not concerned with addressing fundamentally problematic crime rates, but rather “is more about race and poverty than it is about crime, disorder, and delinquency” (133). Although the topic of race and criminalization remain polarizing discussions of contention, it compels questions about how to realistically invoke change for a racially equitable society: how can society work to improve impoverished neighborhoods and promote education in regard to drugs? Furthermore, how should crime prevention plans, such as early childhood intervention, be implemented and how are these concerns legitimately addressed by federal, state, and local policymakers? Despite the futility of eradicating racist attitudes and assumptions, adjustments to legislature that terminate discriminatory policies might have the potential to subdue racists ideals from becoming prominent and negatively impacting laws. Mass incarceration exposes the lingering sentiments of racial superiority complexes and the desire to disempower rivals to the racial hierarchy, but the truth remains that the voices of voters can induce a change that brings American society closer to racial liberation.


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