As one who has written extensively on disparities in the criminal justice system, I am familiar with assorted statistics associated with selective prosecution. The Justice Policy Institute recently released a comprehensive study on the issues of race, poverty, unemployment and selective prosecution within the context of the so-called war on drugs.
The report’s conclusion was blunt: "The drug war is primarily being waged against African American citizens of our local jurisdictions, despite solid evidence that they are no more likely than their white counterparts to be engaged in drug use or drug delivery behaviors."
The study is titled, "The Vortex: The Concentrated Racial Impact of Drug Imprisonment and the Characteristics of Punitive Counties." It examined detailed data from 198 large counties (with a population of more than 250,000) that contains 51.2 percent of the U.S. population.
"In 2002, African Americans were admitted to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites in the 198 largest population counties in the country," the study found. "Ninety-seven percent (193 out of 198) of the large-population counties have racial disparities in drug admission rates."
If African-Americans used and sold drugs at higher rates than Whites, that might be understandable. But, as this and other studies have also found, that’s not the case.
Citing one federal survey, the report noted, "In 2002, there were approximately 14 million white Americans who had used drugs in the previous month, compared to about 2.6 million African Americans who had done so. In other words, there were five times as many whites using drugs as African Americans.
However, our analyses indicate African Americans were admitted to prison for drug offenses at nearly 10 times the rate of whites."
Black youth are also selectively prosecuted.
"According to the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, African American adolescents have slightly lower illicit drug use than their white counterparts – whether for illicit drug use generally or for use of a wide variety of specific drugs, including crack cocaine…However, in 2003, African Americans youth were arrested for drug abuse violations at nearly twice the rate of whites."
All of these factors contribute to the fact that the U.S. imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world.
For the first 70 years of the 20th century, the U.S. incarceration rate remained stable at roughly 100 per 100,000 persons. Since 1970, the rate has risen to 491 per 100,000, almost five times the previous level.
Fueled by mandatory sentencing and get-tough drug laws, the rate at which people have been incarcerated has also soared. Between 1995 and 2003, the number of people in state and federal prisons on drugs offenses increased by 21 percent, from 280,182 to 337,872. However, from 1996 to 2002, the number of those imprioned for drug increases jumped by 47 percent, from 111,545 to 164,372.
A report from the Justice Policy Institute in 2000 showed that Whites admitted to prison for drug offenses increased by 115 percent between 1986 and 1996. Over that same period, the rate for Blacks increased by 465 percent.
Increased imprisonment has been accompanied by increased prison expenditures. According to the American Association of Correctional Association, the cost of housing drug offenders in state and federal prisons totals $8 billion a year.
Counties with the highest drug admission rates were, in order: Kern, Calif.; Atlantic, N.J.; Orleans, La.; St. Louis City, Mo.; Camden, N.J.; Cuyahoga, Ohio; Jefferson, La.; San Bernardino, Calif.; Cook, Illinois and Alameda, Calif.
Counties with the lowest rates were: Washington, Ore.; Cumberland, Maine; Fairfax, Va.; Wake, N.C.; Rockingham, N.H.; Bucks, Pa.; Howard, Md.; Montgomery, Md.; Guilford, N.C. and Mecklenburg, N.C.
"On average, counties with higher unemployment rates, higher poverty rate, and larger percentages of African American citizens tend to have higher rates of admission to prison for drug offenses," the report stated.
Phillip Beatty, coauthor of the study, said, "Laws – like drug laws – that are violated by a large percentage of the population are particularly prone to selective enforcement. The reason African Americans are so disproportionately impacted may, in part, be related to social policy, the amount spent on law enforcement and judiciary systems, and local drug enforcement practices."
To reduce the drug incarceration rate, emphasis needs to be placed on other factors that contribute to the likelihood of one becoming involved in drugs and going to prison, experts say.
Jason Ziedenberg, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, observed: "Rather than focus law enforcement efforts on drug-involved people who bear little threat to public safety, we should free up local resources to fund treatment, job training, supportive housing, and other effective public safety strategies."