Punitiveness Towards Users of Illicit Drugs: A Disparity between Actual and Perceived Attitudes

6 Pages Posted: 26 Aug 2011 Last revised: 6 Jul 2015

Date Written: August 24, 2011


For the past 40 years, the American government has been committed to educating the public about the dangers of illicit drug use. There is a strong presumption that the public expects and demands harsh penalties for drug users, and is largely impatient with programs aimed at rehabilitating them. There is, however, some recent data suggesting that the public may not be wholly committed to a punitive view. We suggest that it is not yet commonly known that attitudes are softening – though many members of the general public may be substantially less punitive than was once normal, they are unaware that their tendency towards leniency is broadly shared by their peers. There may now be a discrepancy between the actual views of individual members of the public and the public’s self-conception of the consensus position. This discrepancy may underlie the growing divergence between the moderating views of the public on drug issues and the continued harsh criminal justice orientation of official policy. In a survey study, we find that members of the general public do overestimate the punitiveness of their peers. At all points in the political spectrum, participants estimate that the average American has drug policy preferences that are actually typical only of Republicans.

Keywords: Drug Policy, Public Opinion, Law, Psychology

Suggested Citation

Kugler, Matthew B. and Darley, John M., Punitiveness Towards Users of Illicit Drugs: A Disparity between Actual and Perceived Attitudes (August 24, 2011). Federal Sentencing Reporter, Vol. 24, No. 3, 2012, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1916386 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1916386

Matthew B. Kugler (Contact Author)

Northwestern University - Pritzker School of Law ( email )

375 E. Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

John M. Darley

Princeton University ( email )

1-N-17 Green Hall
Princeton, NJ 08544
United States
609-258-3000 (Phone)

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