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February 20th, 2008

The Drug War on African-Americans

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."

4.5 / 5 (12 Votes)

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Reader Response
  • Robert Bakerx.
  • October 24th, 2011 Very well written sir. The legal system is right where they want it. Anytime you have a child molester getting more time that a drug offender is sad.

    Reader Response
  • lavon watkins
  • February 9th, 2010 i think that drug use is wrong

    Reader Response
  • Bill Grisham
  • February 28th, 2008 One only needs to research the history of the drug laws to understand why minorities are targeted. The drug laws were aimed at minorities in the first place. Those colored peoples are influencing our women and young people in unamerican activities and ruining our morals. Such grandstanding is understandable when scapegoats are much easier to find and ignorant voters are easily persuaded to go along with the idea that we have to do something to stop this activity. The reality is that what better way to deprive political minorities (today some are actually majorities in certain areas) of political power than to say a free people are to be denied the possession of things and then when they are caught and convicted with them to deny them the future ability to vote and have influence on the political system that classified them as criminals in the first place. Since the first drug laws were implemented in the late 19th century on the state level, they have always targeted minorities because at the time they were pretty much the only persons using the targeted drugs. If you can't just run these people out of the country (which was the preference of the politicians at the time) we can at least take away their political influence. All the Jim Crow laws were for the same purpose and they are all a denial of freedom of action for the individual.
    If there is no damaged/complaining party, there is no crime. Until we recognize this fact, we are lost in the morass of legislated criminality and have sunk to the level of Germany in the 1930s where crimes are created simply by legislative fiat.
    I willl accept as reform only the repeal of all possession of drugs laws. If you harm someone while under the influence, you deserve the punishment for the harm done. Otherwise, leave people alone to live their lives, however stupidly they may do so from your own viewpoint.
    The only politician I hear today wanting to end the senseless war on drugs is Ron Paul and he is also the only one who seems to recognize and use the Repeal word with reference to Federal activities. You want your freedom back, you have to be willing to give others the freedom to be different.

    Reader Response
  • Damione Moody
  • February 21st, 2008 My personal experiences lead me to agree with the perspective and facts laid out in the article, but I would like to add an additional point. Blacks are targeted in part because it is quite simply easier. The basis for my statement is the following: For various reasons, both historical and preferential, blacks tend to live in high density urban areas, thus any illegal activities tend to occur in those same dense areas. In general it is my belief that law enforcement finds its easier to target a community where illegal activities are bounded by finite geographical area, as opposed to traveling through cities and into the suburbs to find white counterparts. Also, the close proximity of illegal activities and their participants in urban settings creates fierce competition and violence, and the violence and the prevention efforts are the primary catalysts for increased police scrutiny. As a result young people who would go un-noticed in suburban circles get caught up in the judicial system.

    Reader Response
  • Malcolm Greenshields
  • February 20th, 2008 This article is an excellent summary of much I have read on the subject. An interesting addition would be a spatial analysis. Do police tend to focus more often on neighborhoods with more poor black residents because the inner city is thought to be the locus of many other crimes? In much more frequently searching suspect residents of these areas they happen to find drugs, and make an arrest. How much attention do they focus on the well-to-do suburbs, schools etc., where drug use among youth may in fact be higher? Part of the problem is a sort of spatial prejudice. Another part altogether is the practice in some areas of arresting people for small amounts of cannabis. It raises arrest statistics without making a serious contribution to the safety of the neighborhood, the real job of police.

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