As if we needed further confirmation that the war on drugs is racially biased in outcome, the human rights group Human Rights Watch released a report Monday showing that blacks have been arrested nationwide for drug offenses at significantly higher rates than whites for at least the past three decades. Whites and blacks engage in drug offenses at similar rates, but blacks were 2.8 to 5.5 times more likely to be arrested than whites in every year between 1980 and 2007.
The report, Decades of Disparity: Drug Arrests and Race in the United States, was based on the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Reports. In addition to national arrest figures, the report provides state by state comparisons of arrest numbers and rates.
More than 25.4 million people have been arrested on drug charges since 1980, the analysis found. About one-third of them were black, although African-Americans make up only about 13% of the population and 13% of drug users.
"Jim Crow may be dead, but the drug war has never been color-blind," said Jamie Fellner, senior counsel with Human Rights Watch's US Program and author of the report. "Although whites and blacks use and sell drugs, the heavy hand of the law is more likely to fall on black shoulders."
And modern day Jim Crow is popping up in some unexpected places. States where blacks are arrested at much greater rates than whites for drug offenses include Oregon, where blacks are 6.0 times as likely to be arrested as whites, West Virginia (6.9 times), Wisconsin (7.1 times), Pennsylvania and Nebraska (7.2 times), North Dakota (8.2 times), Vermont (8.6 times), Kentucky (9.9 times), and Minnesota, where blacks are 11.3 times as likely to get arrested for drugs as whites.
The report also says that arrests for drug possession have greatly exceeded arrests for drug sales every year since 1980. Indeed, the proportion of drug arrests for possession has been increasing, amounting to 80% or more annually since 1999. And marijuana possession arrests are a major driver of the overall figure. Between 2000 and 2007, simple pot possession arrests alone accounted for between 37.7% and 42.1% of all drug arrests.
"Hauling hundreds of thousands of people down to the station house each year because they have some weed or a rock of crack cocaine in their pocket has had little impact on drug use," said Fellner. "But the stigma of a drug arrest, especially if followed by a conviction, limits employment, education and housing opportunities. A more effective, less destructive drug policy would prioritize treatment, education, and positive social investments in poor communities over arrest and incarceration."
Human Rights Watch strongly recommended reducing the disparity in drug arrests -- but not by arresting more white people. Instead, it suggested it was time for a "fresh and evidence-based rethinking of the drug war paradigm." It called on all levels of government to:
- Restructure funding and resource allocation priorities to place more emphasis on substance abuse treatment and prevention outreach, and less on drug law enforcement;
- Review and revise drug sentencing laws to increase the use of community-based sanctions for drug offenses and to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for them;
- Conduct comprehensive analyses of racial disparities in all phases of drug law enforcement to devise ways to ensure the enforcement of drug laws does not disproportionately burden black communities;
- Assess the extent to which considerations of race may influence police decision-making, including decisions regarding the neighborhoods in which police are deployed for drug law enforcement purposes and whom to arrest, particularly for low level offenses such as simple drug possession; and
- Monitor patterns in pedestrian and vehicle stops and other police activities to determine if unwarranted racial disparities exist that suggest racial profiling or other race-based decision-making and to take appropriate action to eliminate racially disparate treatment.