The Justice Policy Institute released a report [PDF] today on the racial disparities in drug law enforcement, and their findings are some of the most comprehensive I’ve seen on this subject. Here’s the report introduction:
Over the course of the last 35 years, the rate at which the U.S. places its citizens in jails and prisons has risen dramatically. For the first 70 years of the twentieth century, U.S. incarceration rates remained relatively stable at a rate of about 100 per 100,000 citizens. Since 1970, the U.S. has experienced a large and rapid increase in the rate at which people are housed in federal and state correctional facilities. Currently, the U.S. incarceration rate is 491 per 100,000.1
The exceptional growth in the prison population has been driven in large part by the rate at which individuals are incarcerated for drug offenses.2 Between 1995 and 2003, the number of people in state and federal prisons incarcerated for drug offenses increased by 21 percent, from 280,182 to 337,872.3 From 1996 to 2002, the number of those in jail for drug offenses increased by approximately 47 percent, from 111,545 to 164,372.4 This does not include people imprisoned for other offenses where drugs, the drug trade, or other drug activities were a feature of the offense.
The increase in incarceration of drug offenders translates directly to an increase in prison expenditures. The American Correctional Association estimates that, in 2005, the average cost of incarcerating one person for one day was approximately $67.55. The cost of incarcerating drug offenders in state or federal prisons amounts to a staggering eight billion dollars per year.5
There is little evidence to suggest that high rates of incarceration affect drug use rates or deter drug users. Researchers have previously found that decreases in crime in the 1990s were not attributable to an increase in the number of prisons or the increase in the incarceration rate.6 A Justice Policy Institute (JPI) study further substantiated these findings by investigating the relationship of incarceration to the rate of drug use in states. In fact, when observed over a three-year period, states with high incarceration rates tended to have higher rates of drug use.7
The growing rate of incarceration for drug offenses is not borne equally by all members of society. African Americans are disproportionately incarcerated for drug offenses in the U.S., though they use and sell drugs at similar rates to whites.8 As of 2003, twice as many African Americans as whites were incarcerated for drug offenses in state prisons in the U.S.9 African Americans made up 13 percent of the total U.S. population, but accounted for 53 percent of sentenced drug offenders in state prisons in 2003.10
The report uses data from 2002 from across the entire United States and discovers that a staggering 97% of large-population counties in this country have racial disparities in drug law enforcement, despite the fact that the evidence collected shows no disparity between the races when it comes to involvement with drugs. The report specifically discusses the work done by UW Professor Katherine Beckett:
A recent in-depth analysis of drug enforcement patterns in Seattle57 indicates that African Americans are disproportionately arrested for drug delivery offenses, and that these disproportions are not due to any extraordinary characteristics of those African American arrestees, the behaviors they engaged in, or the communities in which they were arrested. In other words, although African Americans in Seattle were not selling drugs at a higher rate than whites, they were targeted more frequently for drug arrests. Given the racial disparities in drug enforcement practice highlighted in this in-depth Seattle study, it is not surprising that the drug imprisonment rate in King County, WA, was 23 times higher for African Americans (465 per 100,000) than it was for whites (20 per 100,000) in 2002.
What’s even more alarming than the fact that an African American in this county is 23 times more likely to go to jail for a drug crime than a white person (despite similar numbers of people violating these laws) is that King County is only the 49th worst large county in the United States. The grim statistics are in this Excel spreadsheet.