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Race: Blacks Arrested on Drug Charges in Wildly Disproportionate Numbers, Rights Group Charges

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #575)
Drug War Issues

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.
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)

Back in the 1980's when I worked in a juvenile correctional facility in New Jersey, I noted that over 90% of the juveniles there were Black and Hispanic. I wondered, "Where are all the white kids?" I had been a "white kid" myself not that long ago and I knew that we broke laws the same as minorities.

I also knew that since the juvenile correctional system feeds the adult system, most of the kids would eventually wind up in the revolving door of adult correctional facilities.

Sure enough, now 79% of inmates in New Jersey's adult correctional facilities are Black and Hispanic. The NJ DOC's own web site gives racial stats at:

The NJ prison population tripled (from 9000 to 27,000) in the 22 years I worked there, from 1984 to 2006, mostly as a result of the War on Drugs.

I spoke out about this disproportionate minority confinement early and often. It never ceased to amaze me that our society--especially the minorities--just accepted this institutionalized racism and classism. On top of that, we used inmates in labor details and paid them pennies an hour--it was like slavery was being reinstituted in America.

Ken Wolski, RN, MPA
Trenton, NJ

Fri, 03/06/2009 - 11:44am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello, recently in Pennsylvania two judges have plead guilty to corruption charges for basically selling (convicting) kids and sending them to institutions owned by their cronies. We all need to be concerned about the corruption discovered in Wilkes Barre, Pa. Additionally one can only wonder how far this corruption extends. My adult son was convicted in Wilkes Barre, Pa on drug charges. It was later discovered that my son received an illegal sentence and one year was taken off his sentence. My fear then as it is now is to what extent will the judicial system go to convict minorities, adults & children. Forget about protection of rights, we should know we're not going to get that but certainly if two judges were convicted there has to be more. How does the common person find out how far this corruption has gone and how many more have been affected?

Desparate in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Christine Harrity

Sat, 03/07/2009 - 6:41pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Yeah, i saw that story on CNN, and the kid interviewed in the story was white. That's probably why it made the news. If judges are selling white kids to prisons i wonder how many minorities are being sent who we never hear about. Worse even, how many people are being sent who don't even know they are being treated unfairly.

Mon, 03/09/2009 - 1:08pm Permalink
mlang52 (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

I bet the kid was poor. So it does not matter if you are black or white. Poor fits the bill. Because, this judge gets paid to put you away no matter what the color of your skin!! Bought and paid for!

His kids, and his friends kids (who all have money) won't have to worry about it! It is not necessarily a race thing. Although there are plenty of articles, like the one in this blog, about how racism is now institutionalized, by arresting and jailing more blacks than whites!

Sort of got off topic.

Mon, 03/09/2009 - 3:27pm Permalink

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