A Northeastern University study of drug busts in the Dorchester section of Boston found that black and other minority suspects faced far stiffer charges and longer prison terms than whites, the Boston Globe reported on July 19th. The findings held true even when suspects had similar records or similar roles in the crimes.
The research is only one of a cluster of studies that are zeroing-in on racial disparities in the prosecution of Massachusetts' drug war. It comes on the heels of a report from the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission that looked at the cases of some 800 people convicted of drug offenses that carried mandatory minimum sentences. The commission found that in 81% of those cases the offenders were non-white.
Meanwhile, police, prosecutors, and minority leaders last week announced a broader Boston-area study to examine racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
One of the Northeastern University study's findings suggests that laws that provide enhanced penalties for drug offenses in school zones have an unfair impact on minorities, especially in the context of police and prosecutorial practices that the study found target minorities. In urban neighborhoods, schools sit side by side with homes and businesses, thus making predominantly minority inner city dwellers more vulnerable to "drug free school zone" sentencing enhancements. When drug suspects are charged with dealing offenses instead of simple possession, those enhancements take effect.
The study of some 200 cases in one of Boston's seven court districts found that among defendants described as drug "sellers" in initial police reports, blacks were nearly twice as likely as whites to be charged with drug sales instead of the less serious drug possession.
Racial minorities were also found to be more likely to be charged with distribution or intent to distribute cocaine than whites. Cocaine distribution, intent to distribute, or distribution within a school zone requires a mandatory minimum two-year sentence.
When researchers factored in criminal records, the disparities remained. Comparing blacks and whites with no prior drug arrests, researchers found that more than half the blacks got distribution charges, while only 15% of whites did.
Controlling for the amount of drugs seized, researchers found that, among those arrested with at least 1.5 grams of cocaine, 94% of minorities were charged with drug dealing, while only 26% of whites were.
Police and prosecutors criticized the study as flawed and misleading. "The sample size is way too small," said Suffolk County DA's office spokesman James Borgehesani, who apparently is an expert in social science research methodology as well as prosecutorial flackery.
Assistant DA Andrea Cabral spun scenarios questioning the research for the Globe, arguing that known addicts could be arrested with large stashes but only face possession charges, while persons holding small amounts of drugs packaged for sale could be charged with dealing.