Mass Incarceration and Criminalization

Discriminatory policies have unjustly criminalized communities of color.

The United States is home to less than 5% of the world’s population, but nearly 25% of its prisoners. This is due in part to the overly harsh consequences of drug convictions. Over 1.6 million people are arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated, placed under supervision and/or deported each year on a drug law violation.

But mass incarceration is just one part of the overall system of mass criminalization, enabled in large part by the war on drugs.

What is Mass Criminalization?

The culture of mass criminalization is one in which aggressive policing and incarceration are our default tools for dealing with a wide array of social problems that can and should be solved by other means. These punitive approaches far exceed what is necessary to maintain public safety and primarily target low-income people and people of color.

Watch DPA's Executive Director Kassandra Frederique speak about women and mass criminalization at our 2015 International Drug Policy Reform Conference.

The criminalization of drugs is frequently how people first encounter the criminal legal system. People are stopped by police on drug-related pretexts as part of “stop and frisk,” or because an officer claims to smell marijuana, or simply because they look poor and are in an area associated with drug use.

Relying on the criminal legal system to address issues with drugs wastes money, creates a toxic relationship between the police and the communities they are supposed to protect, and does nothing to address problematic drug use.

Beyond the Criminal Justice System

Because of the war on drugs, we have laws and rules that double down on punishment and attempts to control people. This “drug war logic” means low-income people are denied food stamps and public assistance for past drug convictions, people who are even suspected of using drugs are evicted from public housing and discriminated against in the private housing sector, qualified people have to pass a drug test unrelated to their employment before they are offered a job, non-citizens are deported for infractions that citizens are only ticketed for, students are kicked out of school because of random drug screens, and parents permanently lose custody of their children even when they are following the drug treatment requirements from the child welfare agency. It’s not just about arrests and imprisonment — this is the drug war in action.

"I remember going into the food stamp office to apply for benefits, and basically being reminded of this law that was in effect that said, because my husband and I both have drug convictions on our record, that we were not eligible to receive benefits. So, effectively, giving my whole household less money because of a crime that we had already both paid for." - Lauren, Austin, Texas

Learn more about drug war criminalization at

How Do We End It?

If we want to keep communities – including people who use drugs – safe, we need to focus less on criminalization and more on finding non-criminalizing ways to address issues in communities.

Promote reparative justice

We need to recognize that discriminatory policies have unjustly criminalized communities of color and then advance policies to repair those harms. Exposing and combating the racism of the drug war is an important part of dismantling it.

Decriminalize all drugs

Drug decriminalization would remove criminal penalties for drug use, possession, and ideally low-level drug sales. This would reduce prison and especially jail costs and begin the hard work to prioritize harm reduction over punishment.

End over-policing, particularly in communities of color

Police regularly stop, search, and arrest people of color for minor drug-related activities that are not seen as a law enforcement concern when they take place in white communities. For example, black people and Native Americans are more likely to be killed by law enforcement than other racial or ethnic groups. They are often stereotyped as being violent or addicted to alcohol and other drugs. Experts believe that stigma and racism may play a major role in police-community interactions.

We need to alter the rules of engagement by ending these aggressive law enforcement practices that result in the unjust criminalization of people of color and the erosion of police-community relations. Instead we need to increase harm reduction practices and public health access within communities of color to reduce the harms associated with drug use and ineffective drug policies.

Reduce the stigma of drug users and sellers as deviant, morally bankrupt and deserving of punishment

The stigma associated with drug use and addiction has resulted in policies that systematically discriminate against drug users and sellers. We can reduce this stigma by advocating for compassionate, judgment-free approaches to drug use and dependency. The label of “user” or “seller” and resulting policies often prevent a case-by-case approach to the varied and complex realities of drug use and sales.

Retroactively reduce or expunge drug sentences 

While fighting for decriminalization of drug use and possession, we must also fight for the decriminalization of those people who have already gotten caught up in the prohibitionist system. This means supporting policies that retroactively reduce drug sentences for those currently in prison, or expunge old criminal records for those who have already been released.

Eliminate deportations for drug possession

The criminalization of drugs is closely linked to the criminalization of immigrants, especially those without American citizenship. For noncitizens, possession of any amount of any drug can trigger automatic detention and deportation – often without the possibility of return. No one should be deported for drug possession.

Mass Criminalization