Racial Inequity and Drug Arrests

A NY Times editorial on the insanity of the drug war and its disproportionate impact on communities of color.

Now, two new reports, by The Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch, have turned a critical spotlight on law enforcement’s overwhelming focus on drug use in low-income urban areas. These reports show large disparities in the rate at which blacks and whites are arrested and imprisoned for drug offenses, despite roughly equal rates of illegal drug use.

Black men are nearly 12 times as likely to be imprisoned for drug convictions as adult white men, according to one haunting statistic cited by Human Rights Watch. Those who are not imprisoned are often arrested for possession of small quantities of drugs and later released — in some cases with a permanent stain on their records that can make it difficult to get a job or start a young person on a path to future arrests.

Between 1980 and 2003, drug arrests for African-Americans in the nation’s largest cities rose at three times the rate for whites, a disparity “not explained by corresponding changes in rates of drug use,” The Sentencing Project finds. In sum, a dubious anti-drug strategy spawned amid the deadly crack-related urban violence of the 1980s lives on, despite changed circumstances, the existence of cost-saving alternatives to prison for low-risk offenders or the distrust of the justice system sowed in minority communities.

Nationally, drug-related arrests continue to climb. In 2006, those arrests totaled 1.89 million, according to federal data, up from 1.85 million in 2005, and 581,000 in 1980. More than four-fifths of the arrests were for possession of banned drugs, rather than for their sale or manufacture. Underscoring law enforcement’s misguided priorities, fully 4 in 10 of all drug arrests were for marijuana possession.

One quibble. I do wish that these advocacy pieces would be consistent in distinguishing between arrests and incarceration. An arrest that results in a drug court, or a sentence to treatment and probation is very different that an arrest that results in a jail or prison sentence.

[hat tip: Matt Statman]