BETWEEN THE LINES: Severe Racial Disparities in War on Drugs

Although nearly five times as many whites use illegal drugs as African Americans, nearly twice the number of black men and women are being put behind bars for drug offenses. Among the charges made by Human Rights Watch in a study released last week is that the U.S. war on drugs has been waged overwhelmingly against black Americans. In a report titled, "Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs," Human Rights Watch conducted a 37-state study of the role of race and drugs in prison admissions.

All states that provided data were found to incarcerate African Americans at a far higher rate than whites. As American prisons approach a population of 2 million inmates, the highest in the world, many citizens are asking if justice is really being served by locking up so many non-violent drug offenders, disproportionately from communities of color.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Jamie Fellner, Human Rights Watch associate counsel and author of the report, who summarizes the study's conclusions and recommendations for ending racial disparities in our justice system characterized by the group as a 'national scandal.'

Jamie Fellner: We undertook the research with the idea that we were going to find racial disparities based on other research in the criminal justice system, but we were completely shocked by the extent of the disparities we found.

Nationwide, black men are sent to prison on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men. But in some states -- in at least 15 -- black men are sent to prison at rates that go from 20 to 57 times the rate of white men.

Nationwide, there are five times as many white drug users as black drug users. There are twice as many (white) cocaine users as black cocaine users and every indication is that drug selling cuts across race, class and economic lines.

One of the key reasons, we think, for the disparity, is where the police are doing drug law enforcement. If you primarily go into minority neighborhoods where drug dealing is more public and therefore arrests are easier to make -- which we believe is what the police are doing -- then you're going to be arresting primarily minority people. Whites are selling drugs in their houses, country clubs, bars or clubs, or places of work -- not on the street -- and who therefore are harder to arrest and are going unarrested and un-incarcerated.

Between The Lines: In response to your report, White House drug czar General Barry McCaffrey has said that drug use is more chronic, involves harder drugs and is associated with other crimes in minority communities. In his mind this is a justification for the racial disparities and more focused police enforcement.

Jamie Fellner: In some of the initial inquiries from the press, he made that response. But in subsequent ones, he has not repeated it. It's an odd thing for him to say, because the federal government's own data shows there are twice as many whites using cocaine -- both crack and cocaine powder together than blacks.

And if that is the case, I don't see why he would be saying that we're dealing with a chronic black substance-abusing population. The other response I would have is that, even assuming -- which again, the federal government's own data doesn't support -- we were dealing with a black population chronically using hard drugs, why then are we sending 100,000 people to prison a year? If this is the problem -- a small population of chronic drug users -- why are we sending them to prison, much less, other (such) people to prison? It would seem that his statement, which is that we're dealing with a chronically addicted group, would support one of our recommendations, which is to concentrate less on incarceration and focus more on substance abuse treatment and prevention.

Between The Lines: In your mind what role does racism play in arrest disparities? Do you think it is easier, in general, for police officials, judges and politicians to target communities of color than it is to target the majority white community?

Jamie Fellner: I think there is no easy answer to that question. Instances of individual bias clearly play a role, as they do throughout the criminal justice system. But ultimately, the problem is larger or more complex than just blatant individual bias. It is easier for the police to make arrests in black neighborhoods, not because the people are black vs. white, but because in those communities the drug-dealing is more public. It is easier to do "buy-and-bust."

But race clearly is a factor in another way. Imagine that the numbers were dramatically reversed and whites were being sent to prison on drug charges at the extraordinarily high rates that blacks are. I don't think politicians would press to maintain the current shape of the War on Drugs if whites were going to prison at this rate.

In five states, we have 1 in 13 black men in prison, and a lot of that is because of drugs. Clearly, if it was 1 in 13 white men, I think we would have changed the policy. So whether or not it's racism that gave rise to the War on Drugs, I can't speak to that. But I feel very comfortable saying that when you have social policy directed at a minority, a political minority that doesn't have the clout to force change in the political arena just by virtue of their numbers -- blacks are only 12 percent of the population -- then race is clearly playing a role. And this is compounded by economic and political factors.

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