Human Rights Watch: Decades of Disparity

This 20-page report says that adult African Americans were arrested on drug charges at rates that were 2.8 to 5.5 times as high as those of white adults in every year from 1980 through 2007, the last year for which complete data were available. About one in three of the more than 25.4 million adult drug arrestees during that period was African American.

Drug Arrests and Race in the United States

March 2, 2009

This 20-page report says that adult African Americans were arrested on drug charges at rates that were 2.8 to 5.5 times as high as those of white adults in every year from 1980 through 2007, the last year for which complete data were available. About one in three of the more than 25.4 million adult drug arrestees during that period was African American.

Overview

New national drug arrest data illuminate the persistence and extent of racial disparities in the “war on drugs” in the United States. According to Human Rights Watch’s analysis of arrest data obtained from the FBI:

  1. In every year from 1980 to 2007, blacks were arrested nationwide on drug charges at rates relative to population that were 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white arrest rates.[1]
  2. State-by-state data from 2006 show that blacks were arrested for drug offenses at rates in individual states that were 2 to 11.3 times greater than the rate for whites.[2]

The data also shed light on the persistence and extent of arrests for drug possession rather than sales:

  1. In every year between 1980 and 2007, arrests for drug possession have constituted 64 percent or more of all drug arrests. From 1999 through 2007, 80 percent or more of all drug arrests were for possession.[3]

The higher rates of black drug arrests do not reflect higher rates of black drug offending. Indeed, as detailed in our May 2008 report, Targeting Blacks: Drug Law Enforcement and Race in the United States, blacks and whites engage in drug offenses-possession and sales-at roughly comparable rates. But because black drug offenders are the principal targets in the “war on drugs,” the burden of drug arrests and incarceration falls disproportionately on black men and women, their families and neighborhoods. The human as well as social, economic and political toll is as incalculable as it is unjust.

Racial disparities in drug arrests reflect a history of complex political, criminal justice and socio-economic dynamics, each individually and cumulatively affected by racial concerns and tensions. Reducing the disparities is imperative, but should not be accomplished simply by increasing the rate of white drug arrests. A fresh and evidence-based rethinking of the drug war paradigm is needed. We urge local, state, and the federal governments to:

  • restructure funding and resource allocation priorities to place more emphasis on substance abuse treatment and prevention outreach, and less on drug law enforcement;
  • review and revise drug sentencing laws to increase the use of community-based sanctions for drug offenses and to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for them;
  • conduct comprehensive analyses of racial disparities in all phases of drug law enforcement to devise ways to ensure the enforcement of drug laws does not disproportionately burden black communities;
  • assess the extent to which considerations of race may influence police decision-making, including decisions regarding the neighborhoods in which police are deployed for drug law enforcement purposes and whom to arrest, particularly for low level offenses such as simple drug possession; and
  • monitor patterns in pedestrian and vehicle stops and other police activities to determine if unwarranted racial disparities exist that suggest racial profiling or other race-based decision-making and to take appropriate action to eliminate racially disparate treatment.

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