America's drug laws do not reference race, but the way they are enforced has a gravely disproportionate impact on African Americans, according to two reports released this week. While the two studies' conclusions are no surprise to anyone who has observed the evolution of American drug law enforcement, they provide yet more confirmation that drug prohibition in the United States reeks of racial injustice.
In its report, "Targeting Blacks: Drug Law Enforcement and Race in the United States," Human Rights Watch examined racial disparities among drug offenders in 34 states. In those states, black men were 11.8 times more likely to be arrested on drug charges than whites, and black women were 4.8 times more likely to be arrested on drug charges.
In 16 of those states, blacks are sent to prison on drug charges at rates more than 10 times greater than whites, Human Rights Watch found. The states with the most egregious racial disparities in sentencing are, in rank order, Wisconsin, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, West Virginia, Colorado, New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.
While blacks make up 13% of the population, they accounted for 33% of all drug arrests and more than 53% of all drug offenders entering prison in 2003, the last year studied in the report.
"Most drug offenders are white, but most of the drug offenders sent to prison are black," said Jamie Fellner, senior counsel in the US program at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "The solution is not to imprison more whites but to radically rethink how to deal with drug abuse and low-level drug offenders."
While the Human Rights Watch report examined disparities at the state level, the Sentencing Project's 45-page study, "Disparity by Geography: The War on Drugs in America's Cities," looked at racial disparities at the municipal level. The findings were equally grim. In examining data from 43 of the nation's largest cities, the report found that since 1980, the rate of drug arrests for blacks in those cities had increased 225%. While whites have also been caught up in the ever-expanding drug war, their arrest rate increased by a much lower 70%.
In 11 of the cities examined, black arrest rates on drug charges are more than five times what they were in 1980. In half of those cities, blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to be arrested, even though use rates are roughly constant along racial lines.
"The alarming increase in drug arrests since 1980, concentrated among African Americans, raises fundamental questions about fairness and justice," said Ryan King, policy analyst for The Sentencing Project and author of the report. "But even more troubling is the fact that these trends come not as the result of higher rates of drug use among African Americans, but, instead, the decisions by local officials about where to pursue drug enforcement."
The impact of local decisions about how to prosecute the drug war can be seen in cities across the country. In Tucson and Buffalo drug arrests have increased more than eight-fold between 1980 and 2003; in Kansas City and Toledo, more than seven-fold; in Newark and Sacramento, about six-fold. In some other cities, such as San Francisco and Seattle, policing decisions have resulted in much lower increases in drug arrests.
As Human Rights Watch's Fellner noted above, the answer is not to arrest and imprison more white people for drug offenses. Instead, Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project urged public officials to address racial inequities and restore credibility to the criminal justice system with a number of reforms, including:
- Eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and restoring judicial discretion to sentencing of drug offenders;
- Increasing public funding of substance abuse treatment and prevention outreach to make these readily available in communities of color in particular;
- Enhancing public health-based strategies to reduce harms associated with drug abuse and reallocating public resources accordingly.