Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Racial Disparities Lessen in Drug Incarcerations

According to data released today by the Sentencing Project (whose director, Marc Mauer, is someone students from 3150 should recognize), the number of African-Americans incarcerated for drug offenses has declined proportionately while the number of whites incarcerated for drugs has increased.

For the first time since crack cocaine sparked a war on drugs 20 years ago, the number of black Americans in state prisons for drug offenses has fallen sharply, while the number of white prisoners convicted for drug crimes has increased, according to a report released yesterday.

The D.C.-based Sentencing Project reported that the number of black inmates in state prisons for drug offenses had fallen from 145,000 in 1999 to 113,500 in 2005, a 22 percent decline. In that period, the number of white drug offenders rose steadily, from about 50,000 to more than 72,000, a 43 percent increase. The number of Latino drug offenders was virtually unchanged at about 51,000.

The findings represent a significant shift in the racial makeup of those incarcerated for drug crimes and could signal a gradual change in the demographics of the nation's prison population of 2 million, which has been disproportionately black for decades. Drug offenders make up about a quarter of the prison population.
Of course, what "drug offenders" actually means isn't clear. Use and possession (as opposed to distribution or trafficking) continues to account for the bulk of offenders incarcerated (more than 53% of the federal system), and when you throw in property crime offenses, which are predominantly driven by drug usage, more than half the inmates in the U.S. are in for non-violent, drug-related crimes.

But what would cause the drop?
"I have no doubt that crystal meth explains some of the white increase, but I'm not ready to say it's the reason for all of the white increase," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which opposes stiff penalties for nonviolent drug crimes. "It's also hard to imagine that [drug courts] are not having some effect. Most drug courts are in urban areas where African Americans live."
Also, because of draconian mandatory-minimum drug laws from the 80's and 90's, we may literally have run out of people to lock up.
Joseph McNamara, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, suggested that the decline resulted from so many blacks’ having already been imprisoned over the last two decades.

“With mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, the nation had already locked up so many African-Americans that whole communities were decimated,” said Mr. McNamara, a former police chief in San Jose, Calif.
One wonders if the communities most affected by methamphetamine aren't next.

Stiffer enforcement of laws against the production and use of methamphetamines, which is generally associated with white drug users, could account for the increase in imprisoned white drug offenders, said Beau Kilmer, a fellow at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif.

In California, the number of felony arrests for methamphetamine production increased by about 70 percent over the last decade, Mr. Kilmer said.
Stay tuned.

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