Headlines, Human Rights, North America

RIGHTS-US: Blacks Suffer Persistent Injustice in Drug War

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, May 6 2008 (IPS) - African Americans have suffered much higher rates of arrests and imprisonment than whites in the nearly 30-year-old U.S. “war on drugs”, according to two reports released here this week.

While white citizens constitute the large majority of convicted drug offenders, African American communities have been the principal “fronts” in the war, according to “Targeting Blacks: Drug Law Enforcement and Race in the United States”, by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Among other conclusions, the 67-page report found that African Americans constituted 53.5 percent of all individuals who were sentenced to prison for violating drug laws between the war’s launch in 1980 and 2003, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

Across 34 states covered by the HRW report, a black man was found to be nearly 12 times more likely than a white man to be sentenced to prison for drug offences. A black woman is nearly five times more likely to go to prison than a white woman.

In a separate study of data from 43 of the largest U.S. cities, the Sentencing Project found that the rate of drug arrests for African Americans increased by 225 percent, compared to 70 percent among whites over the same 23-year period, despite the absence of any statistical evidence that the rate of drug use in each community had changed.

In 11 cities, the 45-page study, “Disparity by Geography: The War on Drugs in America’s Cities”, found that black arrest rates grew by more than 500 percent over the period.

“Urban black Americans have borne the brunt of the war on drugs,” said Michael Tonry, a professor of criminal law at the University of Minnesota associated with the Sentencing Project. “They have been arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned at increasing rates since the early 1980s, and grossly out of proportion to their numbers in the general population or among drug users.”

“By every standard, the war has been harder on blacks than on whites,” he added.

“Most drug offenders are white, but most of the drug offenders sent to prison are black,” noted Jamie Fellner, author of the HRW report and a senior counsel of the group’s U.S. programme. “The solution is not to imprison more whites but to radically rethink how to deal with drug abuse and low-level drug offenders.”

The two reports come amid growing controversy about U.S. criminal sentencing procedures and the “war on drugs”.

In a front-page feature article published two weeks ago, the New York Times reported that Washington has the world’s largest per capita incarceration rate by far, with some 2.3 million people behind bars, more in nominal terms than any other nation.

Of that total, nearly 500,000 are in jail or prison for drug offences, compared to about 40,000 people in 1980 when the “war on drugs” was initiated. That over half of the current total serving time for drug-related crimes is black, when the available data suggests that there may be six times as many white drug offenders as black, raises serious questions about racial bias, according to the two reports.

“It is impossible to determine whether and if so to what extent conscious racial hostility has influenced U.S. drug control strategies, according to the HRW report. “But even absent overt facial animus, race has mattered, influencing the development and persistence of anti-drug strategies.

“…(U)nconscious and conscious racial stereotypes have affected public perceptions of drugs, crime, disorder, and danger, and helped shape political and policy responses,” it went on. “Drug policy could have focused on a public health approach and sought to reduce demand. Instead, a penal approach has been pursued that focused on the suppliers, and, in particular, suppliers in minority neighborhoods.”

Those neighbourhoods, according to the report, suffer long-lasting damage, as a disproportionate number of their residents, including breadwinners, go to prison.

“Current Minnesota drug policies damage minority communities and help assure that many minority group members remain locked in multi-generational cycles of disadvantage and social exclusion,” according to Tonry.

“The alarming increase in drug arrests since 1980, concentrated among African Americans, raises fundamental questions about fairness and justice,” said Ryan King, author of the “Disparity of Geography”. “But even more troubling is the fact that these trends come not as the result of higher rates of drug use among African Americans, but, instead, the decisions by local officials about where to pursue drug enforcement.”

The HRW report found that in 16 of the 34 states it covered, African Americans are sent to prison for drug offences at between 10 and 42 times the rate for whites. The worst disparities were found mainly in the Rust Belt and mid-Atlantic states, including Wisconsin, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, West Virginia, New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Colorado also rated among the worst.

It also found that among all African Americans entering prison, almost two out of five (38.2 percent) were convicted of drug offences. The comparable ratio for whites was one out of four.

The Sentencing Project report found significant differences in performance among the major cities. While the top 10 cities’ average growth in the number of drugs arrests between 1980 and 2003 came to nearly 600 percent, the growth rate for the bottom 10 cities averaged only l50 percent.

And, while the Texan cities of Dallas and Fort Worth are separated by only 50 kilometres, the latter experienced an 81 percent increase in drug arrests over the 23 years while Dallas had a 42 percent decline.

Even more striking, the study found a nearly 900-percent increase in the drug-related arrest rate in Tucson, Arizona, while Phoenix, the state capital, experienced a relatively small 52-percent increase.

“The extreme variation in city-level drug arrests suggests that policy and practice decisions, and not overall rates of drug use, are responsible for much of this disparity,” the report asserted.

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