In the Seattle PI this week, AP writer David Pitt shares some sobering statistics:
DES MOINES, Iowa — Blacks in the United States are imprisoned at more than five times the rate of whites, and Hispanics are locked up at nearly double the white rate, according to a study released Wednesday by a criminal justice policy group.
The report by the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based think tank, found that states in the Midwest and Northeast have the greatest black-to-white disparity in incarceration. Iowa had the widest disparity in the nation, imprisoning blacks at more than 13 times the rate of whites.
For years, this disparity has continued to worsen, even as the numbers of people we send to prison in this country reach record levels. A public official from Iowa demonstrates the typical blind spot for the why this is happening:
Paul Stageberg, administrator of the Iowa Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning, said the results are not surprising, but the causes are subject to interpretation.
He said the state’s disproportionately high black arrest rates are likely linked to high poverty rates among blacks and lower educational achievement.
He’s completely wrong. The disparity does not result from any characteristic of the black community itself. It results from the way drug laws are enforced. I know I sometimes sound like a broken record on this front, but this problem is both well-known among those who study this and widely ignored by everyone else. And it’s long past due that we focus on the real reasons why our prisons are bursting at the seams and dispropotionately filled with minorities.
The chart at his link is from arrest data from 1996. It shows the number of individuals per 100,000 sent to prison for drug offenses – broken down by race. It’s important to recognize that surveys have repeatedly shown that there’s no difference in drug usage rates between different races. The difference lies in whose usage is targeted by the police and whose usage is ignored.
In the years since, things have actually gotten slightly better, but the disparity is still alarming. A report from Human Rights Watch in 2003 notes:
African-Americans are arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned for drug offenses at far higher rates than whites. This racial disparity bears little relationship to racial differences in drug offending. For example, although the proportion of all drug users who are black is generally in the range of 13 to 15 percent, blacks constitute 36 percent of arrests for drug possession. Blacks constitute 63 percent of all drug offenders admitted to state prisons. In at least fifteen states, black men were sent to prison on drug charges at rates ranging from twenty to fifty-seven times those of white men.
The disparities we see today do go beyond just drug offenses. Violent gang activity also leads towards a higher number of minorities going to prison. But what’s rarely ever made clear whenever these reports surface in the media is how our eagerness to put young black people in jail for drugs also leads to that outcome. Teenagers and young adults in black communities, who are doing things that most white teenagers get away with, are sent away to prison even if they have no prior record of violence. But instead of being “reformed” behind bars, they go in the opposite direction, making gang connections, becoming bitter at the lost opportunity they have, and returning to the world much more likely to commit a violent crime. Our drug laws have served to create a criminal class among African-Americans. We used to believe that stronger enforcement of drug laws in black communities were a benefit to them. Now we clearly understand that their enforcement does little more than just reinforce the stereotypes about the inherently criminality of blacks in our society.
Talking about these issues politically can be extremely difficult. The notion that blacks are more prone to crime and therefore require more strident policing finds acceptance among both liberals and conservatives. The myth that drug prohibition keeps us safe and that criminalizing drug use is necessary continues to eat away at our society in complete silence.
On Thursday night, I joined SeattleJew at an anti-violence vigil at Pratt Park in Seattle, led by Pastor Robert Jeffrey. Just as in other major cities, Seattle’s black community has fallen victim to this modern day incarnation of Jim Crow. At the end of Jeffrey’s passionate sermon, individuals lit candles and got up to speak about those who’ve been lost in the crossfire. Some were wearing T-shirts of the lost loved ones they mourned, while others spoke of brothers and sisters whose lives ended too soon. Not surprisingly, drugs were a common theme among the stories. Those who used drugs in this community were always in fear of being arrested.
As someone for whom illegal drugs were always nearby throughout college and afterwards, in both college towns and wealthy white suburbs, I don’t have stories of friends being killed and no one I personally know of has ever been arrested. Money certainly plays some role in that, but race plays a much bigger one. Our drug laws and the racial bias in their enforcement have created two entirely separate justice systems in this country that divide us in ways much more extreme than any of the ways we divide ourselves. And hopefully the next time grim statistics from our prison system make people scratch their heads and wonder what’s going wrong, the media will have more of a clue as to where to point the finger, rather than simply asking those in our criminal justice system who don’t have the courage to look into their own role.