More than two decades after President Ronald Reagan escalated the war
on drugs, arrests for drug sales or, more often, drug possession are
still rising. And despite public debate and limited efforts to reduce
them, large disparities persist in the rate at which blacks and
whites are arrested and imprisoned for drug offenses, even though the
two races use illegal drugs at roughly equal rates.
Two new reports, issued Monday by the Sentencing Project in
Washington and by Human Rights Watch in New York, both say the racial
disparities reflect, in large part, an overwhelming focus of law
enforcement on drug use in low-income urban areas, with arrests and
incarceration the main weapon.
But they note that the murderous crack-related urban violence of the
1980s, which spawned the war on drugs, has largely subsided, reducing
the rationale for a strategy that has sowed mistrust in the justice
system among many blacks.
In 2006, according to federal data, drug-related arrests climbed to
1.89 million, up from 1.85 million in 2005 and 581,000 in 1980.
More than four in five of the arrests were for possession of banned
substances, rather than for their sale or manufacture. Four in 10 of
all drug arrests were for marijuana possession, according to the
latest F.B.I. data.
Apart from crowding prisons, one result is a devastating impact on
the lives of black men: they are nearly 12 times as likely to be
imprisoned for drug convictions as adult white men, according to the
Human Rights Watch report.
Others are arrested for possession of small quantities of drugs and
later released, but with a permanent blot on their records anyway.
"The way the war on drugs has been pursued is one of the biggest
reasons for the growing racial disparities in criminal justice over
all," said Ryan S. King, a policy analyst with the Sentencing Project
who wrote its report, which focuses on the differential in arrest
rates, not only between races but also among cities around the
country. Some cities pursue urban, minority drug use far more
intensively than do others.
Both Democratic presidential candidates, Senator Barack Obama of
Illinois and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, have
strongly condemned the racial disparities in arrests and
incarceration during their campaigns, although neither has said how
they would end them.
Two-thirds of those arrested for drug violations in 2006 were white
and 33 percent were black, although blacks made up 12.8 percent of
the population, F.B.I. data show. National data are not collected on
ethnicity, and arrests of Hispanics may be in either category.
"The race question is so entangled in the way the drug war was
conceived," said Jamie Fellner, a senior counsel at Human Rights
Watch and the author of its report.
"If the drug issue is still seen as primarily a problem of the black
inner city, then we'll continue to see this enormously disparate
impact," Ms. Fellner said.
Her report cites federal data from 2003, the most recent available on
this aspect, indicating that blacks constituted 53.5 percent of all
who entered prison for a drug conviction.
Some crime experts say that the disparities exist for sound reasons.
Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York,
said it made sense for police to focus more on fighting visible drug
dealing in low-income urban areas, largely involving members of
minorities, than on hidden use in suburban homes, more often by
whites, because the urban street trade is more associated with
violence and other crimes and impairs the quality of life.
"The disparities reflect policing decisions to use drug laws to try
and reduce violence and to respond to the demand by law-abiding
residents in poor neighborhoods to clean up the drug trade," Ms. Mac
But what people in low-income urban areas need is not more
incarceration but improved public safety, Mr. King said. "Arresting
hundreds of thousands of young African-American men hasn't ended
street-corner drug sales."
A shift of resources toward drug treatment and social services rather
than wholesale incarceration, he said, would do more to improve
conditions in blighted neighborhoods.
Limited efforts have been made to shift policies in ways that may
reduce racial differences. Many states are experimenting with
so-called drug courts, which send users to treatment rather than
prison. This does not, however, affect arrest rates, which have
lifelong consequences even for those who are never convicted or imprisoned.
Police in a few cities including Denver, Seattle and Oakland, Calif.,
have said they are spending fewer resources on arrests for
lower-lever offenses like marijuana possession.
In December, the United States Sentencing Commission amended the
federal sentencing guidelines for convictions involving crack
cocaine, which is more often used by blacks, somewhat reducing the
length of sentences compared with those for convictions involving
powder cocaine. But mandatory and longer sentences for crack
violations remain embedded in federal and state laws.
Pubdate: Tue, 6 May 2008
Source: New York Times (NY)
Page: 21, Section A
Copyright: 2008 The New York Times Company
Author: Erik Eckholmv