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Sentencing: Racial Disparities in Drug Sentences the Norm in the Nation's Most Populous Counties, Study Finds

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #513)
Consequences of Prohibition
Drug War Issues

A report released Tuesday by the Justice Policy Institute has found that nearly all of the nation's most populous counties imprisoned blacks for drug offenses at a higher rate than whites. Out of the 198 counties examined in the report, 193 of them, or 97%, showed racial disparities in sentencing.

The report, The Vortex: The Concentrated Racial Impact of Drug Imprisonment and the Characteristics of Punitive Counties, found that counties with higher poverty rates, larger black populations, and larger police or judicial budgets imprison people for drug offenses at higher rates than those who don't. Those relationships held whether the county had a high crime rate or not.

The five US counties with the highest racial disparities are, in rank order: Foryth County (Winston-Salem), North Carolina; Onondaga County (Syracuse), New York; Dane County (Madison), Wisconsin; Kane County (west Chicago suburbs); Illinois; and Westmoreland County (east of Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania.

Among the major findings:

  • While tens of millions of people use illicit drugs, prison and policing responses to drug behavior have a concentrated impact on a subset of the population. In 2002, there were 19.5 million illicit drug users, 1.5 million drug arrests, and 175,000 people admitted to prison for a drug offense.

  • While African Americans and whites use and sell drugs at similar rates, African Americans are ten times more likely than whites to be imprisoned for drug offenses.
  • Of the 175,000 admitted to prison nationwide in 2002, over half were African American, despite the fact that African Americans make up less than 13 percent of the US population.
  • There is no relationship between the rates at which people are sent to prison for drug offenses and the rates at which people use drugs in counties. For example, although Rockingham County, NH, has a larger percent of its population reporting illicit drug use, Jefferson Parish, LA, sent more people to prison for a drug offense at a rate 36 times that of Rockingham.
  • Higher county drug prison admission rates were associated with how much was spent on policing and the judicial system, higher poverty and unemployment rates, and the proportion of the county's population that is African American.

"The exponential removal of people of color who have substance abuse problems from their communities and into prisons undermines and destabilizes neighborhoods -- it does not make them safer," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Drug addiction doesn't discriminate but our drug policies do."

Researchers attributed disparate policing practices, disparate treatment before the courts, mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws, and differences in the availability of drug treatment for African Americans compared with whites as reasons for the significant racial disparities seen in drug imprisonment rates.

"Laws -- like drug laws -- that are violated by a large percentage of the population are particularly prone to selective enforcement," said Phillip Beatty, coauthor of the study. "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."

While the report does not make detailed recommendations for counties, the authors suggest that policymakers consider reforming drug policies to include:

  • De-escalation of the "drug war." Drug enforcement practices are focused in the African-American community, despite evidence that they are no more likely than their white counterparts to be engaged in drug use or drug delivery behaviors. Local, state and federal policymakers should closely examine racial disparities in local drug imprisonment rates that result from these practices, and consider alternative approaches to reducing drug use and sales.

  • Careful consideration of public safety funding. While policing and judicial expenditures need to be prioritized to help deal with violent crime, other ways to promote public safety would include investments in public health policies and services that reduce poverty and unemployment.
  • A shift to evidence-based drug enforcement practices. Reform drug enforcement practices, and collect data to analyze the fairness of local drug enforcement tactics and policies.

"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," said Jason Ziedenberg, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

One more study, belaboring the obvious. What isn't so obvious is that if you look at the history of the drugs laws, particularly who promoted them way back in the beginning of the last century, < a href=>you find those who did so were racist bigots terrified of anyone whose skin coloration didn't closely approximate Wonder Bread.

Those who promoted the laws felt that the only way to keep the 'barbarians within the gates' (as they thought non-Whites to be) was to use a means that didn't involve overt use of the less sophisticated methods popular at the time (lynching, hanging, etc.) but could accomplish the goal of suppression/oppression under a legal framework. Enter the War on Drugs.

How plain does the nose have to be before you acknowledge there's one on your face? How many times do yo have to feel a sharp pain in your rectum, and see the same people hovering around your backside with a busted bottles in hand, before you make the obvious connection? How many times must African-American and Hispanic-American's in 'leadership' positions witness that violation and experience it themselves? How long before they make the connection that their support of drug laws is like the 'pledge scene' from the movie Animal House? ("Thank you sir, may I have another?" Whap!)

The DrugWar was and is racist to the core. This study only proves it. Now, what will the people most affected by about it?

Sat, 12/08/2007 - 12:56pm Permalink

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