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.

White Media Resist U.N. Investigation of US Racism

Glenn Beck, color-blind conservative media darling of the “Right,” has a new issue to add to his national ranting and ravings—United Nations investigations. More specifically, in a press release, which states:

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Mr. Doudou Diène, will undertake a country visit to the United States of America from 19 May to 6 June 2008 at the invitation of the U.S. Government.

In terms of Glenn Beck, on his May 20, 2008 television show, he made light of the issue of institutional racism within the United States. He went as far as saying, after behaving like a pre-pubescent boy in terms of “making fun” of Mr. Diene’s first name, that he should visit Oprah Winfrey, Collin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, the new Black Governor of New York (David Paterson), and other Black actors in Hollywood. It is apparent that these people symbolize to Beck that racism is no longer a factor within this country. (photo credit)

Like other misguided color-blinded racists who are entitled by the White Power Structure within this country, Mr. Beck refuses to see examples of institutional racism within education (for example, “The Impact of the Law on African American Males,” by Preston Green, III, American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 51, 872-884; or T. Fitzgerald, T. (2006). “Control, Punish, & Conquer: U.S. Public School Historical Attempts to Control Black Males,” Challenge: A Journal of Research on African-American Men, 12(1), 39-54; Muktha, Jost., Edward L. Whittfield, & Mark Jost (2005). “When the Rules are Fair, But the Game Isn’t,” Multicultural Education, 13, 14-21), the criminal justice system (for example, Edelman, Marian W. (2007). “On Losing Our Children in America’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline,” In The State of Black America 2007: Portrait of the Black Male, pp.219-227. NewYork: National Urban League), US housing, and etc.

Apparently, Mr. Beck is not alone in thinking that this investigation is not an important undertaking, for this initiative has not been discussed by the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and other large newspaper distributions.

New & Old Content….

So, it looks like the server crash cost us about a week’s worth of posts. I’m going to use the magic of the cache to restore some of these older posts, so if you had a favorite bit of content in the last week or so, it should auto-magically reappear in the next day or so. In the meantime, we’ll also be loading new content from me, Joe and a few new contributors. Stay tuned and thanks for reading here.

And, we’re back….

Sorry, dear readers, that we have been offline since Sunday, 5/18. There was a server outage with our web host and this was completely beyond our control. We apologize and are taking steps now to mirror the site elsewhere so that this doesn’t happen again.