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Sentencing: Number of African Americans in Prison for Drugs Falling, Whites Increasing

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #581)
Consequences of Prohibition
Drug War Issues

The number of African Americans behind bars for drug offenses dropped dramatically from 1999 to 2005, while the number of white drug war prisoners has increased, according to a report released Tuesday. That is a "potentially significant change" in the outcomes of drug policies, said the report's author.

still too many people in prison notwithstanding
The report, The Changing Racial Dynamics of the War on Drugs, was written by Sentencing Project executive director Marc Mauer. It relied on official numbers from the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics.

According to the report, in 1999, 145,000 blacks were doing time in state prisons for drug offenses; by 2005, that number had declined by 22% to 113,500. At the same time, the number of white drug war prisoners jumped 43%, from 50,000 in 1999 to more than 72,000 in 2005. The number of Hispanics doing time for drugs in state prisons remained constant at about 51,000.

The decline in the number and percentage of black drug war prisoners is the first since the crackdown on crack during the lock-'em-up Reagan years of the mid-1980s. But while the decline is significant, blacks remain imprisoned on drug charges at a disproportionate rate. They made up 45% of state drug prisoners in 2005, down from 58% in 1999, but still far in excess of their percentage of the overall and drug-using populations, about 12%.

The report examined the reasons behind the decrease in black drug prisoners and the increase in white drug prisoners and arrived at some tentative conclusions. It found that blacks made up a declining percentage of all non-marijuana drug arrests and accounted for a declining number of drug convictions during the period in question.

The reasons for the declines in black drug arrests, convictions, and imprisonment lie in the rise and fall of crack cocaine and the increasing resort to drug courts and other diversionary programs, the report suggested. With crack use falling off after its harms became apparent, and with crack sellers shifting from open air markets to indoor sales, the number of African-Americans arrested for crack offenses is declining. Similarly, the report suggests that the increase in whites imprisoned on drug charges may be partially attributable to the rise of methamphetamine in the past decade.

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)

If the trend keeps on going, legalization will come soon. Can you really imagine that the trend would keep going long enough for the percentages to become true to the real population (12% of those in prison for drug offenses being black, most imprisoned for drug offenses being white) without legalization happening first? I think it is a powerful visual thing, seeing your own kind being treated as criminals, seeing your own kind being thrown into jail, it wakes people up to the reality of the drug war. Not just that, but people you know, friends of yours. When there start to be more and more (and more, and more...) stories around your neighborhood, and your school, and your friends, of people being treated as criminals. If you came from a ghetto, how many people do you think you would have known who had gone to jail? If that same number of people was going to jail in wealthy suburbs, how fast do you think politicians would start talking about "ending this tyranny of incarcerating non violent people!" ?

Fri, 04/17/2009 - 10:49pm Permalink
Charles (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Black Men in America's Jails and Prisons

Too many young black men continue to waste their precious lives in a state of neo bondage. As a correctional educator for the past several years, I can tell you that the prisons and jails in this great country are overflowing with young African-Americans. All of my students are young black men - every single one. As a teacher, it saddens me to see the talent that is wasted on a daily basis.

We all need to start doing more to address this esculating dilemma. The youth of this country don't need to rot in jail, while we (Americans) ignore the problem. Something is causing this horrible trend to continue. You may ask yourself ”What can I do?”. There is no easy answer, but you need to do something. A few suggestions woould be:

organize sports functions (basketball leagues, football leagues, etc.)
talk to kids at school
write books
contact government officials
do volunteer work
tutor kids
take kids fishing, camping, etc.

The point here is to start doing something. If we simply ignore the problem, where do you think we will be in 10 years pertaing to this issue?

For my part, I have written a book aimed at helping young black men who are already incarcerated.

The book is called:
   Black Choices, A young black man's guide to prison survival
ISBN: 1-60813-727-9, 83 pages, 6 x 9,
 The book can be ordered through or by calling 301/695-1707
This book can make a real difference to the young man who is incarcerated. It can help him to negotiate prison life more successfully and also start planning for what life brings after prison is over. If you have a loved one or friend in jail, consider sending him this most important book. I believe it will help his life to start getting back on the road to a more successful future.

Sun, 06/14/2009 - 1:59pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

lock up all the drugies, black, white, & mexican! drug use is a moral hazard & should not be accepted in todays America! We need to get back to a more wholesome society of churchgoing, scouting, & prre-1960's type American / family values. Locking up druggies will also provide good jobs in these tough economic times. A moral & economic stimulus/bailout, 2 birds with one stone, cmon congrres & Obamas!!

Mon, 04/20/2009 - 3:20am Permalink

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