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.


  1. Seattle in Texas

    As far as I am concerned, the idea of mandatory minimum sentencing along with the idea of labeling people who engage in non-violent and “victimless crimes” as “felons”, particularly stigmatizing people who use drugs, serves to reinforce eugenic type ideologies, an evolved notion of “feeblemindedness” if you will. The whole process begins with discretion used by the cops when they encounter manufacturers, peddlers, and users. And as if the cops and DEA aren’t involved? Please. Then from there, if an arrest is even made, it all depends on the legal representation—public defender or private representation…this does, along with the judge, determine one’s fate in so many ways. It’s no different than tracking students in K-12 to either prepare for “work” or college—it’s all a tracking process and it is not about justice at all. Drug use itself harms nobody but the user (providing the drug is actually harmful, etc.); however, the consequences of use and addiction could result in potential secondary problems of various sorts (depending on the drug or substance—look at the secondary consequences of alcohol use and consumption!—there are some “illegal” drugs don’t even result in comparable negative consequences, yet somehow lead to felony convictions) of which if even problematic, should be handled through rehabilitation—with the realistic understanding, that relapse is a part of recovery—NOT FAILURE OF THE PROGRAM OR THE INDIVIDUAL. I’m not sure how many people have honestly never experimented with one substance or another in their lifetime and even got caught up for a period of time, particularly when they were adolescents entering adulthood. Arrest and imprison us all, please. It’s clearly a racist system. But what is further disturbing about all this is the families of the “offenders”—parents, siblings, partners/spouses, children, etc. The detrimental consequences extend so far beyond just the offender. Very depressing.

    Oh and throw in the Patriot Act which shredded the Constitution—bye bye to the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments….

  2. Dr. Stacy Branch

    What happened to me should serve as a direct example of how drug arrests are racially motivated and many times completely unsubstantiated, uncalled for and flat out wrong. African-Americans can be arrested in the U.S. for drug offenses where there is no offense at all.

    I am an African-American woman, veterinary medical doctor and toxicologist who was falsely arrested after being illegally searched (person and vehicle) by Anniston, AL police after being stopped on the highway for no reason. I was arrested for illegal possession of prescription drugs. The medication was progesterone. Veterinarians, physicians, dentists, etc. are specifically exempt from the code of the charge. If not, your doctor would get arrested every time she or he had to treat you with medications. More importantly, one can not be convicted of such a charge when they have the prescription!

    These criminally acting police were wrong on two counts. I am a licensed veterinarian with a DEA license. I also had the prescription with me. Why did they think I could have illicit drugs? This was racial profiling period. By the way, the charge was dismissed. When these police did not find what they had hoped, they just made something up (which was still bogus and extremely absurd in all the ways).

    People can not walk away from these types of acts. The problem of the excessive incidence of drug arrests (particularly of African-Americans) has escalated to a severe epidemic. All citizens must be involved in the furtherance of justice and protection of civil rights. Otherwise, things will only get worse.

  3. Seattle in Texas

    Truly traumatizing—and the case was just simply dropped. What is also scary is the lack of education most officers have, yet the amount of power and control society grants them. Every state has different rules and standards their officers must meet in order to be an officer or cop—I just know overall the standards in terms of education are quite low. But they should be held accountable for their actions and the state should remedy their screw-ups; deliberate or not. In your situation for example, there could have been easily a degree of trauma (compounded incarceration if that took place), they could have impounded your vehicle at your cost, you could have lost time from work, if you had children to worry about where they will be during the ordeal (week day or week end could make a difference in everything), come up with bail, if you had a partner—that could have impacted their employment temporarily, hire an attorney, etc. Yet, since the Patriot Act, however, (which while is apparently supposed to set in place for fighting terrorism…is obviously unconstitutional, racist, and everything else) they no longer need a reason or cause—which I understand leaves the state almost, if not, completely immune from negligent, reckless, and racist decision-making, actions, and outcomes. It is beyond appalling. Not only do significant changes need to be made on so many levels, but also I absolutely agree that all citizens must be involved in as you say, the furtherance of justice and protection of civil rights. And the thought of McCain being our next president for possibly 8 years??? But your experience is most definitely a prime example of how racism is carried out by law enforcement—and such experiences, regardless of outcomes, can never be taken back….

  4. Dr. Stacy Branch

    Hello Seattle in Texas:
    You are right, they impounded our vehicle (and even vandalized it), arrested my husband (case also dismissed), questioned us without ever reading our rights, required us to post bail, and more. We also had to hire lawyers. This issue is not closed by any means because there is no way I can walk away from this type of blatant violation. Regardless of the patriot act we still, at least for the moment, have our constitutional rights. The issue is that we have to fight extremely hard to have these rights enforced and respected. Since so many people have become apathetic and allow the violation of their own rights, we who do fight have a monumental task before us. I am glad you agree that we all must involve ourselves in the protection of our basic human and civil rights. The question is how many more believe this and are willing to act accordingly.

  5. Seattle in Texas

    Hello Dr. Branch, I wish you and your husband the best with your case. Here I can only be short as with all honesty my words would only be negative and discouraging due to my lack of faith in the collective concept of social justice in the U.S., etc. You might wish to run your case by the ACLU also, if you haven’t already. Thank you for sharing here for so many reasons. And I have to say; you end with a great question…one that every reader of your post should deeply ponder on. Please keep us updated if you wish, it is very important and hopefully your story will get out across the nation here to a diverse and interdisciplinary audience. Best of luck. (Let me see if I can come up with some optimism…if I can’t hopefully somebody else can in the meantime) Take care

  6. Claire Renzetti Author

    Seattle in Texas, you raise a very important question: What is justice? How can it be said that arresting individuals for simple possession and jailing or imprisoning them is just, especially in light of the horrible conditions in our nation’s jails and prisons? What good could jail or prison possibly do? Fortunately, some states are recognizing the value of diversion programs that include drug and alcohol treatment, although they are motivated by fiscal concerns more than rehabilitative ones. And as my post emphasizes, drug and alcohol treatment are hardly sufficient. Improvements in education, job training programs, community development projects, affordable housing and child care — to name a few — are critical. You also raise the important point of what we might call secondary victimization: that is, the impact of arrest and incarceration on offenders’ families. Much of the work I do focuses on gender differences in offending and victimization. While the families of male offenders certainly suffer, the families of female offenders, particularly their children, need special consideration, I think. Female offenders are significantly more likely than male offenders to report that their children lived with them prior to incarceration and that they were the sole caregivers of their children. The severe negative impact of incarceration on both incarcerated mothers and their children deserves attention. Surely there is a better response to drug offending than locking up moms for extended periods of time, destroying their families? This “get-tough” approach to nonviolent offending unmasks the underlying racism and sexism of conservative family preservation rhetoric.

  7. Claire Renzetti Author

    Dr. Branch, your experience is horrifying, not only because of what you and your husband have personally endured, but also because it is unfortunately quite common. I am certain that there are many other readers of this blog who have similar stories to tell. And they need to be told, and retold, in as many venues to as wide an audience as possible. I applaud you for not letting this incident be hidden, despite the considerable cost to you and your husband. You are correct that despite the Patriot Act, we still have constitutional rights, but your case illustrates well the extensive discretionary power that police have to stop and search citizens and vehicles — and US Supreme Court decisions have supported and reinforced this power. I want to echo Seattle in Texas by wishing you and your husband all the best with your case. Please do let us know what happens and how we may support you.

  8. Seattle in Texas

    Thank you Dr. Renzetti and I agree that major, or rather radical change must take place at much deeper levels and well beyond only selected partitioned aspects of systems and institutions in this society—changes must occur in unison. In terms of Dr. Branch’s situation, I wanted suggest that it is so unfortunate, but that is not even close since it is so common —I was unable to find anything encouraging to say, yet could only offer support. I think you captured what needed to be said very nicely. She has all of our support here, thank you.

  9. Dr. Stacy Branch

    Dear Seattle in Texas and Dr. Renzetti:

    Thank you very much for your understanding and support. This is of great value to us and we appreciate it. I will keep you posted. Any and all suggestions concerning the endeavor for accountability will be helpful. The absence of this helped to make this problem mushroom in our society. Thank you very much again and take care.

  10. Seattle in Texas

    Dr. Branch, you are very welcome. I had said if I could come up with any thoughts that were inspirational, I would be back. I don’t know if you have read any of the other discussions, but there was what I would call an inductive type thinker who posted some excellent thoughts a while back—her name was Isabel. (In response, a person named Adia also posted some excellent thoughts too, though saw things just a bit differently–yet counter perspectives that are equally important–it just depends on which lens one wishes to use when viewing the world, etc.) But Isabel had suggested that it takes just one person to potentially bring about revolutionary change and used Rosa Parks as an example. Discussion could go further into what exactly it was that allowed Ms. Parks to be “the one” and a powerful theory not used much in academia would suggest all of the conditions were in place for it to happen. In other words, suppose somebody back in California or Texas, wherever, would have engaged in an identical act, chances are the same outcome could not have occurred. So why Ms. Parks? Imagine the numerous answers you could get from such a question from a variety of disciplines, perspectives, etc. But back to Isabel’s point, it really can take just one person to make a world of difference and we can never know for sure who or when that could be. But one thing we do know, is if nobody acts or challenges it will never come about and things are sure to only worsen.

    The suggestion I would give to you is to be sure they keep the language straight and the situation focused on what happened exactly as it occurred. Don’t let them change the incident from, for example, “The Branch’s were arrested” to “We temporarily ‘detained’ the Branch’s”—all of this will be socially constructed and even re-created to work against you and your husband by the other side. The legal outcomes of an “arrest” and “detainment” are entirely different. So, while the original intentions and actions of the officers may have been an actual “arrest”, if they change it to “being detained”, the everything changes. If I were you, I would keep a diary of how this has impacted you, etc. I would make sure they keep the language straight and if they use language you don’t understand, demand a clarification. I am sure all of these things and more your attorneys(s) will handle for you.

    We always hear of the “legal” arrests, etc. which is what scholars use to conduct their work, yet I am unaware of any numbers that reflect the “illegal” arrests, searches, and seizures—the only time I have heard about these are when they make it to the court of appeals or Supreme Court (and these numbers in comparison to what a large number of people actually experience are grossly disparate). This in my opinion prevents people at the individual level to realize it is not a personal problem, but rather a social issue, which keeps society from revolting against it. Plus on top of it, the laws that have changed in the last few years have reflected the trend of preventing people from exercising their constitutional rights and rightfully seeking remedy for harms and damages committed by state or federal officials—they are almost nearly immune to any wrongful actions and decisions they make. This is very scary, yet the only way to change it is to challenge it and in my opinion, raise awareness just as you have done here. And I am very glad Dr. Renzetti put up such a wonderful and important post! Take care

  11. Corrections 3.0: Innovations in Prisoner Work and Recidivism
    Satisfied with mediocrity, policy makers and professionals in corrections continue to “just warehouse” prisoners at costs too high to pay. In the view of one author, the incarceration of “blacks” and “brown” lawbreakers at higher rates compare to “whites” remains a problem and is costly (see D. Roberts, The Social and Moral Cost of Mass Incarceration of African American Communities, Standford Law Review, 2004). Marc Mauer’s research at The Sentencing Project, a think tank in Washington, DC, presents a compelling case for disporportionate confinement of African Americans; and, we as a human race must accept some responsibility. When is the criminals debt paid to society? Is imprisonment (or death) the only acceptable way to repay the debt? Is retribution in the long-term acceptable and sensible as the only route to justice? Gendreau (2000), and the “what works” experts argue that a “panaceaphilia” of “quick fix” solutions is a longstanding problem in corrections. After spending billions, even trillions, on incarceration (management and construction) and “warehousing,” a new vision is required. Modern corrections must become immune to the “fartcatcher syndrone” and become optimistic about the benefits of evidence-based research and knowledge of what works to reduce recidivism and improve ex-offender reentry into society (see Gendreau, 1996; 2000).

    What Works?

    When will policy makers consider as a priority the prisoner’s return to society and readiness for a successful reentry? The production of goods and services has moved beyond the US borders. Workers must update their employability skills to remain competive in the labor market. The traditional model of work has changed since the 1940s so that the US business can be competitive in the global flat (or 3.0) world. The Urban Institute reports that a million incarcerated males costs about X to GDP; and, Petersilia (2004), What Works in Prisoner Reentry?acknowledges that releasing thousands of prisoners per year is not new, but supervision services are “strecthed beyond limits,” having an adverse impact on ex-offender postrelease success. Garth-Lewis (1993), research found work, especially marketable job skills training, invaluable and with vocational rehabilitation and education, provide a framework to improve inmate “work effort,” self-esteem and can reduce recidivism and improve reentry (Garner, 1985; Cogburn, 1988; Hall, 1990). This paper provides a discussion of innovations in prisoner work; highlights characteristics of Joint Ventures; proposes a Joint Venture Accountability Model as a framework to improve ex-offender reentry and reduce recidivism.


    You have all the facts. Minorities are disproportionately penalized simply for being poor and being minorities. I consider this genocide as it destroys families, communities, and minorities in general spiritually, financially, physically, and culturally. I don’t understand why reforming the prison-industrial complex in America is not the civil rights issue of the decade!

    One in ten jobs in America are related to the prison industrial complex. We incarcerate 40 times more individuals than any civilized country and the same number of citizens as China which has five times our population.

    This is a tremendous burden on our economy. We don’t produce saleable goods or increase the gross national product from our prison industry. Our tax base is eroded when all of these people don’t work. Huge health care costs, not paid for by those using it (the prisoners) increase the public expenses. Welfare and Medicaid expenditures are bloated by the needs of the families of the incarcerated who can no longer support them. Potentially productive workers for new high tech and energy industries are frozen in dead end jobs (correctional officers and employees), when they could be producing saleable goods and services while increasing our country’s productivity. Salvageable workers are thrown to the wind by ignoring and vastly underfunding drug and alcohol abuse treatment and mental health treatment.

    Our 40 year experiment concerning being “tough on crime” has failed miserably. Ultimately we will be increasing the crime rate as angry, hostile, untrained prisoners, whose mental illness, addiction, and bad habits are ignored, are released into the population – as we reap the fruits of that which we sow. The ranks of those being released each year are growing exponentially as the steadily increasing numbers incarcerated are released – now about 600,000 persons a year.

    I believe until:

    we take the profit out of the prison-industrial complex;
    increase transparency in contracting, juvenile justice, mental health care, training of officers and staff, and policy decisions;
    increase training for correctional officers and most importantly for parole officers (who have the toughest and most complex law enforcement job in the country);
    take corruption out of the system (particularly in Illinois where all contracts with the State require a 10% kickback or bribe, leading to hiring unqualified patronage workers as officials and officers of the prison system);
    legalize marijuana and control it like tobacco or alcohol to free up law enforcement, prosecutors, and the courts to deal with more substantial crimes;and
    most importantly add rehabilitation into the prison system so that the prisoners who are released become productive citizens; as well as
    abolish the costly and useless death penalty,
    the system will remain hopeless broken and costly, helping to drive our economy into the ground.

    For more information about corruption in the Illinois and Cook County prison/court systems see my blog:

  13. Claire Renzetti Author

    Thanks for your comment, Linda. I agree that much more attention must be paid to the prison industrial complex, including saturation policing of poor and minority neighborhoods. These are clearly civil rights issues, as you point out. Thanks, too, for sharing your blog address. I hope readers of RacismReview will check it out. You have some important information posted there.


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