The War on Drugs and Mass Incarceration in America

Lab Reports, Timelines
Data visualizations courtesy of the Last Sentencing Project illustrating international rates of incarceration and the racial disparities in the incarceration in the U.S.
Figure 1. Data visualizations courtesy of the Last Sentencing Project illustrating international rates of incarceration and the racial disparities in incarceration in the U.S.


Calls for criminal justice reform often use powerful visualizations to illustrate the United States’ dramatic increase in incarceration rates and the stark racial disparities existing within its incarcerated population (Fig. 1). These visualizations often credit the failed policies of America’s 50 year “war on drugs” as a driving force behind mass incarceration, but often without specifically identifying key events or policies for users. Inspired by my own research after encountering visualizations like the Sentencing Project’s Criminal Justice Fact Sheet, I set out to build a brief history of the war on drugs with the understanding that the chronology of a timeline is especially useful in identifying the cause and effect relationships that shape statistical trends.Introduction

Process & Materials

In conducting preliminary research, I reviewed examples of historical timelines for the war on drugs by well-known resources like NPR, PBS, and The History Channel, finding that they were all presented as a vertical wall of text, listing event after event, commonly with the year bolded and sometimes interspersed with subheadings to communicate relationship between the events listed in each section. Although these timelines were often comprehensive they also tended to be exhaustive, since the war on drugs is far-reaching with an impact on the world outside the U.S. criminal justice system. Therefore, to populate my timeline, I consulted recent media coverage and critiques of America’s war on drugs policies like that of Vox Media and The Nation in order to determine what most essential events, or data points, shaped toady’s criminal justice system. Guiding my data selection processes, I asked the following questions:

  • How does this event impact the criminal enforcement of drug use and drug trafficking?
  • How does this event shape the perceived relationship between drug abuse and criminal activity?

Next, I searched for appropriate images and videos to illustrate my events while offering some interaction for the user, including videos and links to external sources for users to learn more about a specific event or topic.

Once I had my materials, I used TimelineJS, an open-source tool from Northwestern University’s Knight Lab, to build my timeline. Utilizing the accompanying Google Sheet template, I simply copied and pasted by dataset into the sheet, adding external links with html tags (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Screenshot from building dataset within the Google Sheets template.
Figure 2. Screenshot from building dataset within the Google Sheets template.


Unlike the vertical walls of text I first consulted in building my timeline, my visualization built with TimelineJS is more visually stimulating with images, videos, and external links that encourage exploration with easy navigation on the right and left hand sidebars. (Fig 3). Also, as opposed to the models I first consulted in formulating this project, the horizontal orientation of timeline allows users to visually identify relationships between events as that are clustered within the same few years as well as gather a greater sense of time passing between periods where policy remains untouched or the status quo is upheld. Overall, I found the tool very easy to use and effective in communicating the impact of war on drugs policies on mass incarceration in America over a 50-year period.

Explore the timeline here.

Title page of timeline.
Figure 3. Title page of timeline created in JSTimeline.

Reflection & Future Direction

If I had more time to build out this project, I would have liked to find a way to include more information in the timeline as well as include more contemporary data visualizations in order to more effectively link historic events and policies to the data trends currently informing criminal justice reform. Furthermore, criminal justice reform is such a complex issue both at the federal and state level, that I kept my data points consistently at the federal level for simplicity and generalizability. Furthermore, I would have liked to explore further customizations within TimelineJS to potentially use color to signal the events between decade or the shift of public opinion in the early 2000s. Overall, I think this timeline is effective in offering a brief summary of (some of) the major events and the exercise highlighted for me the consideration that goes into not only presenting data, but selecting what data to visualize.