In the last couple of months, there has been a lot of discussion of the 1994 crime bill, mostly saying that it started or accelerated a trend to mass incarceration. I was going to write about that, but several stories in the last few days have made the point I was going to make, which was that the rate of imprisonment started to rise in the mid-1970s, and the most rapid increase occurred before 1994 (see this article and more discussion and statistics here).
So instead I'll go back to the time when it actually started. In 1973, the Gallup Poll asked: "The governor of a state has proposed that all sellers of hard drugs such as heroin be given life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Do you approve or disapprove of this proposal?" 71% of the people with an opinion said they approved (only 4% had no opinion).
Support was strong among both Republicans (77%) and Democrats (68%). It was a little lower among college graduates (62%) and younger people (59% among people aged 26 and under). It was also somewhat lower in New England (57%) and the Middle Atlantic (67%). The regional differences are interesting, because the governor in question was probably Nelson Rockefeller--New York soon did pass a law that was not quite as draconian as the proposal in the Gallup question, but pretty severe. There were no clear differences between residents of urban and rural areas. Finally, there were differences by race: 72% of whites, 66% of black women, and 55% of black men, said that they approved (the interaction between race and gender is statistically significant).
Although there are some group differences, and they are all in the direction you'd expect, they were not that large, and a majority of every group I looked at was in favor of the proposal.
[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]