Addressing Racial Disparities: Drug Arrests and Incarceration

In March, I posted an item alerting readers to a newly-released report from the Pew Center on the States showing that the United States imprisons more of its citizens than any other country. Moreover, the report showed that the incarcerated population was disproportionately made up of young African American and Hispanic men and women. On May 5th, two additional reports were released detailing how drug enforcement policies and sentencing practices contribute to these racial disparities in arrests and incarceration. (photo: Pennington).

Disparity by Geography: The War on Drugs in America’s Cities, by Ryan S. King (Sentencing Project), is the first longitudinal analysis of city-level drug arrest data by race, covering the 23-year period (1980-2003) of the initiation and expansion of the “war on drugs.” Looking at 43 of the country’s largest cities, King found that 40 of these cities had a substantial increase in drug arrests during this time, with six cities showing an increase of more than 500%. Increases in drug arrests varied across the cities studied, but what is more interesting is that King found significant variations within states. For example, Tucson, Arizona had an 887% increase in drug arrests between 1980 and 2003, while the increase in Phoenix was only 52%. Once again, African Americans disproportionately bear the burden of these increases. The increase in drug arrests of African Americans was more than three times greater than the increase in drug arrests of white Americans (225% and 70%, respectively). In 11 of the cities examined, drug arrests of African Americans increased by more than 500% during the study period.

What accounts for these disparities? While some might argue they reflect racial differences in drug dealing and usage, the Sentencing Project report states that African Americans and whites have relatively equal rates of illegal drug use. King’s analysis indicates instead that the disparities are largely accounted for by law enforcement practices. More specifically, many law enforcement agencies have adopted a practice of saturation policing in which they concentrate their resources on low-income urban neighborhoods with large minority populations under the assumption that in these communities drug dealing is more open and more violent than that which occurs in suburban neighborhoods with predominantly white residents. But the data indicate that most arrests are not for violent drug-related crimes or even for the sale or manufacture of drugs, but rather for simple possession. In fact, four out of five drug arrests are for possession, and 40% of all drug arrests are for possession of marijuana.

In Targeting Blacks: Drug Law Enforcement and Race in the United States, researchers at Human Rights Watch (HRW) document some of the consequences of the saturation policing strategy and the disparate impact on minority communities. The HRW analysis uses data from 34 states compiled by the National Corrections Reporting Program for 2003, the most recent year for which data are available. In an effort to “get tough” on drug crimes, many states adopted mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenders, resulting in a swelling of incarceration rates. For example, in 1980, “there were about 40,000 people in jails and prisons for drug crimes. These days, there are almost 500,000” (The New York Times, April 23, 2008, p. A14). But the HRW report shows that not everyone has an equal chance of being incarcerated for a drug conviction.

The analysis documents that despite the fact that African Americans are 12.8% of the U.S. population, they were 53.5% of all individuals who entered prison in 2003 because of a drug conviction. Overall, blacks were 10.1 times more likely than whites to go to prison on drug convictions. In agreement with the Sentencing Project’s report, the HRW researchers conclude that this disparity is a direct outgrowth of the conceptualization of the nation’s drug problem as largely an urban black problem, even though there are data indicating that there may be six times as many white drug offenders as black drug offenders. “The racially disproportionate results presented in this report are as predictable as they are unjust” (p. 4).

One outcome of the rise in incarceration has been prison overcrowding with many states incurring a huge strain on their budgets. As their prison populations have grown, states have had to spend a larger share of their funds on corrections, diverting funds from other areas, such as education. Nationally, between 1987 and 2007, state spending on corrections increased 127%, while state spending on higher education increased 21%, controlling for inflation. In Michigan, spending on corrections exceeds spending on high education. To save money, some states have been looking for ways to reduce their prison populations, using programs such as early release, community supervision, and unsupervised parole (See Keith Richburg and Ashley Surdin, “Fiscal Pressures Lead Some States to Free Inmates Early,” Retrieved May 6, 2008 from ).

But the emphasis on fiscal costs overlooks the human costs of the “war on drugs” law enforcement strategy. As the Sentencing Project report states, saturation policing of minority urban neighborhoods that has resulted in the arrests of hundreds of thousands of young black men has not stopped drug sales or drug use in these communities. Instead, it has created a group of able-bodied citizens with a criminal history that renders them chronically unemployable. Many employers simply will not hire ex-offenders. Inadequate education is also an employment obstacle for many ex-offenders, but individuals with a drug conviction do not qualify for federal tuition grants. Those who get jobs sometimes face transportation problems because they have difficulty getting driver’s licenses. The jobs they get are typically low-paying, but while in prison, child support and court fees have accrued so they may find their meager paychecks are heavily garnished, leaving them with little to live on, let alone to support a family (The New York Times, April 27, 2008, p. 26). In short, the “war on drugs” law enforcement strategy has not solved the drug problem, but it has substantially reinforced social inequalities.

In April of this year, President Bush signed the Second Chance Act, a new law that provides $326 million in grants to local governments and nonprofit organizations for programs – from housing to drug treatment to employment services – that assist the approximately 650,000 people that are released from prisons and jails every year. Although the law received bipartisan support and has been praised by politically diverse groups, it is seen by many as insufficient largely because it focuses on the aftermath of imprisonment and not the factors that lead to imprisonment. Drug treatment, improved education, social services, community development to address urban blight, job training – all instead of using resources for saturation policing, arrest, and incarceration – would go a long way in not only reducing prison overcrowding and strained government budgets, but also reducing racial disparities in arrest and imprisonment and improving public safety in urban minority communities. As Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, recently commented regarding the Second Chance Act, “If we’re concerned [about] people coming out of prison, maybe we should think about how many people are going to prison in the first place. . . . This is the back end of the problem. We need to look at the front end” (quoted in Dan Eggen, “Bush Signs into Law a Program that Gives Grants to Former Convicts,” Retrieved May 6, 2008 from

The full Sentencing Project report is available here; the Human Rights Watch report is available here.

Dubious Distinction: US Imprisons More Citizens Than Any Country

The Pew Center on the States, part of the not-for-profit Pew Charitable Trusts headquartered in Washington, DC, released a report last week entitled, One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008. The report’s principal author, Jennifer Warren, notes that the incarcerated population in the US has grown steadily over the past three decades to reach the point in 2007 where about one in every 100 adults in this country – the actual incarceration rate is one in every 99.1 adults – is now confined in a prison or jail. The total prison population in 2007 was nearly 1.6 million with an additional 723,000 people in local jails. China, the country with the second highest incarceration rate in the world, has about 1.5 million people in its prisons.

The report is significant not only because of the shocking statistics it presents on the US incarceration rate relative to other countries, but also because of the data on the disproportionate incarceration of some groups relative to others and on the costs of incarceration. As the report points out, the one in 100 statistic

“masks far higher incarceration rates by race, age and gender” (p. 5).

Men and women of color, especially young African American and Hispanic men and women, are far more likely to be incarcerated than white men and women. For example, among men, the highest incarceration rate is among African Americans: one in 21, compared with one in 54 for Hispanics and one in 136 for whites. But the rate jumps to one in nine for African American men ages 20-34, the highest rate of any gender, race, or age group. Among women, African Americans again have the highest incarceration rate: one in 279, compared with one in 658 for Hispanics and one in 1,064 for whites. The highest incarceration rate among women is for African American women ages 35-39: one in 100.

According to some commentators who have seen the report, these figures simply show higher crime rates among these groups. As a law professor and former federal judge stated:

“One out of every 100 adults is behind bars because one out of every 100 adults has committed a serious criminal offense” (quoted in The New York Times, February 29, 2008, p. A14).

However, the report indicates that much of the growth in incarceration is due to an increased willingness of the criminal justice system to imprison nonviolent offenders – especially drug offenders – as well as those who have committed minor or technical violations of probation or parole. States have enacted “three strikes” laws, indeterminate sentencing structures, and mandatory minimum sentencing policies that have contributed significantly to “how big the crowd behind bars will be” (p. 7). And one important outcome of this “get-tough” approach is growing strain on states’ budgets. On average, states spend nearly 7% of their total budget on corrections. While most states still spend more on health care, education, and transportation, the percentage of state budgets going to corrections has risen in the past two decades. For instance, in 1987, for every dollar spent by the states on higher education, 32 cents was spent on corrections. In 2007, however, the states were spending 60 cents on corrections for every dollar spent on higher education (p. 32). There appears to be little recognition of the relationship between inadequate or deficient education and crime, not to mention the relationships between racism, sexism, and social class inequality and crime.

The Pew report recommends diversion programs, such as community supervision, for nonviolent offenders as well early release for nonviolent inmates. Some states that have felt the budget strain of growing incarceration rates most intensely are making changes to their sentencing and correctional policies and practices. Texas, for instance, leads the country in incarceration even though the state saw a slight drop in its prison population in 2007. That same year the Texas legislature approved expansions to drug courts and drug treatment programs to divert substance abusers from prison. It will be worth monitoring the impact of these changes to gauge who benefits from them and if they can overcome the racism, sexism and class inequality inherent in our criminal justice system.

The full report is available for download here.