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United States

H U M A N

Targeting Blacks

R I G H T S

Drug Law Enforcement and Race in the United States

W A T C H

Targeting Blacks
Drug Law Enforcement and Race in
the United States

Copyright © 2008 Human Rights Watch
All rights reserved.
Printed in the United States of America
ISBN: 1-56432-315-3
Cover design by Rafael Jimenez
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May 2008

1-56432-315-3

Targeting Blacks
Drug Law Enforcement and Race in the United States
Acknowledgments...............................................................................................................1
I. Introduction .................................................................................................................... 2
II. Recommendations.......................................................................................................... 7
III. Background: The War on Drugs and the US Criminal Justice System............................... 9
Fig.1: Drug Abuse Violation Arrests ........................................................................... 9
IV. Race and the Incarceration of Drug Offenders ...............................................................14
Drug Offenses and Black Incarceration ..........................................................................14
Table 1: Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses as a Percentage of All Admissions, by
Race and Gender, 2003 ........................................................................................... 15
Racial Composition of Drug Offender Admissions ..........................................................16
Racial Disparities in Rates of Admission ........................................................................16
Table 2: Number of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses, by Race, 2003................. 17
Fig.2: Racial Composition of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses, 2003 .................18
Table 3: Rates of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses, by Gender and Race, 2003..19
Fig.3: Rates of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses, by Race, 2003........................ 20
Fig.4: Ratio of Black:White Rates of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses, 2003 ..... 22
Table 4: Ranking of States by Ratio of Black:White Prison Admission Rates for Drug
Offenses, 2003....................................................................................................... 23
Fig.5: Correlation of White and Black Rates of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses,
2003 ...................................................................................................................... 24
Race and Gender ...........................................................................................................25
Fig.6: Male Rates of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses, by Race, 2003................27
Fig.7: Female Rates of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses, by Race, 2003............ 28
Table 5: Ratio of Black:White Rates of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses by Gender,
2003 ...................................................................................................................... 29

V. Changes between 1996 and 2003 ................................................................................. 30
Racial Disparities 1996-2003........................................................................................ 30
Table 6: Rates of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses, by Race, 1996 and 2003 .... 32
Table 7: Ratio of Black:White Rates of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses, 1996 and
2003 .......................................................................................................................33
Table 8: Racial Composition of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses, 1996 and 2003
................................................................................................................................34
Table 9: Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses as a Percentage of All Admissions, by
Race, 1996 and 2003...............................................................................................35
Race and Gender 1996-2003 ........................................................................................ 36
Table 10: Male Rates of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses, by Race, 1996 and
2003 ...................................................................................................................... 38
Table 11: Female Rates of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses, by Race, 1996 and
2003 ...................................................................................................................... 39
Table 12: Ratio of Black:White Rates of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses by
Gender, 1996 and 2003 .......................................................................................... 40
VI. Origins of Racial Disparities in Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses ............................41
Rates of Illegal Drug Activity ..........................................................................................41
Drug Users.............................................................................................................. 42
Fig.8: Lifetime Drug Use by Race, Ages 12 and Older ................................................43
Drug Sellers.............................................................................................................43
Rates of Arrest ...............................................................................................................45
Table 13: US Arrests for Drug Abuse Violations, 2006 ............................................. 46
From Arrest to Imprisonment ........................................................................................ 48
Case Study: New York................................................................................................... 49
Table 14: New York Drug Arrests by Region and Race/Ethnicity: 2002 ..................... 50
Fig 9: Black Drug Arrests, New York City and New York State ................................... 50
Table 15: Race and Ethnicity of New Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses In New York,
2006 ....................................................................................................................... 51
Case Study: Illinois........................................................................................................ 51
Case Study: Seattle .......................................................................................................52
Case Study: A Focus on Counties ...................................................................................54
VII. Racial Injustice and Human Rights.............................................................................. 55
VIII. Conclusion ................................................................................................................ 59

IX. Methodology............................................................................................................... 61
Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses.............................................................................61
Race and Prison Admissions......................................................................................... 62
Rates of Admission....................................................................................................... 62
Total Figures ................................................................................................................. 63
Limitations ................................................................................................................... 63
External Validity ..................................................................................................... 63
Reporting of the Cases............................................................................................ 63
Duplication............................................................................................................. 63
Missing Data on Race ............................................................................................. 64

Acknowledgments
This report reflects the collaboration of Human Rights Watch and the Berkeley-Tulane
Initiative on Vulnerable Populations at the Human Rights Center, University of
California, Berkeley. Dr. Patrick Vinck, director of the Berkeley-Tulane Initiative,
compiled and analyzed the prison admissions data in this report. Jamie Fellner,
senior counsel of the US Program at Human Rights Watch, undertook additional
research for the report and was its author, with Dr. Vinck’s assistance.
The report was edited at Human Rights Watch by Ian Gorvin, deputy program director;
Clive Baldwin, senior legal advisor; David Fathi, director of the US Program; and
Carol Chodroff, advocacy director of the US Program. Also at Human Rights Watch,
Ashoka Mukpo, US program associate, Grace Choi, publications specialist, and Anna
Lopiore, creative manager and photo editor provided invaluable production
assistance. Ashoka Mukpo and Carly Bendzans, an intern at Human Rights Watch,
also provided research assistance.
Human Rights Watch would like to thank Peter B. Lewis and the John Merck Fund for
generously supporting the work of the US Program.

1

Human Rights Watch May 2008

I. Introduction
What the drugs themselves have not destroyed, the warfare against
them has. And what once began, perhaps, as a battle against dangerous
substances long ago transformed itself into a venal war on our
underclass. Since declaring war on drugs … we’ve been demonizing our
most desperate citizens, isolating and incarcerating them and otherwise
denying them a role in the American collective. All to no purpose. The
prison population doubles and doubles again; the drugs remain.
—Ed Burns, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Richard Price, and
David Simon, creators of the HBO television series The Wire, in an oped written for Time Magazine, March 5, 20081
Long before launching the global “war on terror,” the United States launched what it
called the “war on drugs,” a law enforcement and crime control effort targeting its
own people. Ostensibly color-blind, the US drug war has been and continues to be
waged overwhelmingly against black Americans. Although white Americans
constitute the large majority of drug offenders, African American communities
continue as the principal “fronts” in this unjust effort. Defenders of the current antidrug efforts claim they want to protect poor minority communities from addiction as
well as the disorder, nuisance, and violence that can accompany drug dealing. But
the choice of imprisonment as the primary anti-drug strategy, and the effect of this
policy on neighborhoods, evokes the infamous phrase from the Vietnam War, “it
became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.”2

Targeting Blacks updates our prior report documenting racial disparities among drug
offenders sent to prison. 3 It reveals that drug law enforcement in the United States
continues to produce extraordinarily high and disproportionate rates of black

1 Ed Burns et al., “The Wire’s War on the Drug War,” Time Magazine, Wednesday, March 5, 2008,
http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1719872,00.html (accessed March 12, 2008).
2 Attributed to an unnamed US military officer by Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett, February 7, 1968.
3 Human Rights Watch, United States – Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs, vol. 12, no. 2(A),
May 2000, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2000/usa/. Punishment and Prejudice was based on state prison admissions data
from 1996. We focus in this present report only on the racial implications of the so-called war on drugs.

Targeting Blacks

2

incarceration, particularly for black men. Based on data on new prison admissions
reported by 34 states to the National Corrections Reporting Program for 2003 (the
most recent available),4 our analysis reveals that:
•

African Americans constituted 53.5 percent of all persons who entered prison5
because of a drug conviction;6

•

Blacks were 10.1 times more likely than whites to enter prison for drug
offenses;

•

A black man was 11.8 times more likely than a white man to enter prison for
drug offenses;

•

A black woman was 4.8 times more likely than a white woman to enter prison
for drug offenses;

•

Among all African Americans entering prison, almost two out of five (38.2
percent) were convicted of drug offenses, compared to one in four whites
(25.4 percent); and

•

Although still dramatic, the racial disparity in the ratio of black to white prison
admission rates for drug offenses in 2003 was in most states less than in
1996. Nevertheless, because of the increase in the disparity in states with
large populations such as New York and California, the racial disparity across
the 34 states was higher in 2003 than it was in 1996. In 2003, the black
prison admission rate for drug offenses was 10. 1 times that of whites. In 1996,
it was 9.9 times greater.

4 The prison admissions data presented in this report is drawn from information reported by 34 individual states to the federal
National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP) for the year 2003, the last for which data were available. Although Alaska
reported to the NCRP that year, we have excluded it from our analysis because there were many blanks in its data and it did
not report any new admissions to prison for drug convictions. We have limited our analysis to the two racial categories, black
and white, and did not include breakdowns by ethnicity (for example, Hispanic vs. non-Hispanic) because of the large number
of missing data for ethnicity in the data reported by the states. The “white” and “black” categories each include Hispanic
individuals. See Chapter IX: Methodology, for a complete description of the data and our methods of analysis.
5 In this report we use the terms “entered prison,” “admitted to prison,” “prison admissions,” and “new court commitments”
interchangeably. They are used to refer to people who were sent to prison by the courts because of convictions on new
charges. See Chapter IX: Methodology.
6 A person can be sentenced to prison with convictions for multiple offenses. In this report, when we refer to drug offenders,
people convicted of drug offenses, drug admissions, and the like, we refer only to people whose most serious conviction crime
was a drug offense. If, for example, a person was convicted of murder or armed robbery as well as selling drugs, he would not
be included in our data as a drug offender.

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Human Rights Watch May 2008

The 59,535 adult African Americans who entered prison with drug convictions in
2003 in the 34 reporting states form just part of the unknown numbers of African
Americans who have been incarcerated over the past two-and-a-half decades at
rates greatly disproportionate to whites.7 Since the mid-1980s, the nation’s drug
problem has been perceived to be primarily an urban black problem, even though—
as discussed below—available data suggests there may be six times as many white
drug offenders as black. The racially disproportionate results presented in this report
are as predictable as they are unjust.8
It is impossible to determine whether and if so to what extent conscious racial
hostility has influenced US drug control strategies. But even absent overt racial
animus, race has mattered, influencing the development and persistence of antidrug strategies. The emphasis on penal sanctions, for example, cannot be divorced
from widespread and deeply rooted public association of racial minorities with crime
and drugs.9 The choice of crack cocaine as an ongoing priority for law enforcement—
instead of the far more prevalent powder cocaine10—cannot be divorced from public
association of crack with African Americans, even though the majority of crack users
were white.11 In short, unconscious and conscious racial stereotypes have affected
7 There are no official data on the number of African Americans or whites who have been incarcerated on drug charges during
the “war on drugs.” Between 1974 and 2001, an estimated 2,166,000 blacks were incarcerated on all charges in state and
federal prisons. Thomas P. Bonczar, Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), “Prevalence of Imprisonment in the U.S. Population
1974-2001,” August 2003, p. 1, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/piusp01.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008).
8 Many organizations have documented the racial disparities in US anti-drug efforts. See, for example, the websites of The
Sentencing Project, http://www.sentencingproject.org/IssueAreaHome.aspx?IssueID=3 (accessed April 16, 2008), and the
Justice Policy Institute, http://www.justicepolicy.org (accessed April 16, 2008).
9 Michael Tonry, Malign Neglect - Race, Crime and Punishment in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); David
Cole, No Equal Justice (New York: the New Press, 1999); David Musto, The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control (New
Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973); Katherine Beckett, Kris Nyrop, and Lori Pfingst, “Race, Drugs, and Policing:
Understanding Disparities in Drug Delivery Arrests,” Criminology, vol. 44, no. 1 (2006), http://www.blackwellsynergy.com/action/showPdf?submitPDF=Full+Text+PDF+%28298+KB%29&doi=10.1111%2Fj.17459125.2006.00044.x&cookieSet=1 (accessed April 16, 2008).
10 Despite its notoriety, crack has never been one of the most heavily used drugs in the United States. For example, of the
estimated 111,774,000 people age 12 and older who have used an illicit drug at least once in their lifetime, 8,554,000 are
estimated to have used crack cocaine. In contrast, an estimated 35,298,000 persons have used powder cocaine, and
20,118,000 have used stimulants. US Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health
Services Administration (SAMHSA), “Results from the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings,” 2007,
Appendix G: Selected Prevalence Tables, Table G.1, http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/NSDUH/2K6NSDUH/AppG.htm (accessed
April 16, 2008). SAMHSA’s prevalence estimates are based on a survey of representative households and non-institutional
group quarters nationwide.
11 In 1995, the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) noted, “Public opinion tends to associate the country's drug
crisis, specifically its perceived ‘crack problem,’ with Black, inner-city neighborhoods. [SAMHSA’s National Household Survey
on Drug Abuse] found that cocaine in any form was used by 2.8 percent of Whites, 3.9 percent of Blacks, and 3.8 percent of
Hispanics in the survey population during the 1991 reporting year. Because Blacks and Hispanics comprise significantly
smaller percentages of the total population, the majority of those reporting cocaine use were white.” USSC, “Special Report to
Congress: Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy,” February 1995, p. 34, http://www.ussc.gov/crack/exec.htm (accessed

Targeting Blacks

4

public perceptions of drugs, crime, disorder, and danger, and helped shape political
and policy responses. Drug policy could have focused on a public health approach
and sought to reduce demand. Instead, a penal approach has been pursued that
focused on the suppliers, and, in particular, suppliers in minority neighborhoods.
The harms to those neighborhoods—as well as to the individuals sent to prison—are
serious and long-lasting. Criminologist Michael Tonry has pointed out that unless
and until drug control policies are less destructive, the life prospects for many
disadvantaged blacks will remain bleak.12 His recent summary of the problems with
Minnesota’s drug policies applies with equal force nationally:
Current Minnesota drug policies damage minority communities and help
assure that many minority group members remain locked in multigenerational cycles of disadvantage and social exclusion. If Minnesota
is ever to offer equal opportunities and life chances to all its citizens, it
will have to radically rethink and revise its responses to drug use and
abuse. Current policies cause much more harm than they prevent, and
require tens of millions of dollars of annual expenditures on law
enforcement and corrections that could be much more constructively
committed to improving people’s lives.13

April 16, 2008). According to the 2006 national household survey of drug use and health conducted by SAMHSA, 3.3 percent
of surveyed whites and 5.3 percent of surveyed blacks age 12 and older reported having used crack cocaine at least once in
their lifetime. SAMHSA, “Results from the 2006 National Survey,” Table 1.34A,
http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/NSDUH/2k6NSDUH/tabs/Sect1peTabs1to46.htm#Tab1.34A (accessed April 16, 2008). Given the
disparity in the size of the respective populations in the United States, these percentages translate into a striking difference
in the absolute numbers of each racial group estimated to have used crack: 5,553,800 whites and 1,537,000 blacks. The
spread of crack cocaine—much cheaper than powder—in black neighborhoods, coupled with violence by drug gangs seeking
to establish control over the crack market, prompted extraordinary levels of political and press attention to crack’s use by
African Americans. The USSC has published succinct summaries of what is known about comparative risks and dangers of
crack versus powder cocaine, and has repeatedly concluded there is no justification for the far higher sentences for crack
offenders. Among its findings were that the two drugs are pharmacologically identical, with their effects depending primarily
on method of ingestion, and that many of the fears about crack—for example, crack babies—have proved groundless. In
addition, the violence that accompanied the establishment of distribution networks for crack cocaine when it was first
introduced has greatly diminished.
12 See, for example, Tonry, Malign Neglect.
13 Michael Tonry, “Minnesota Drug Policy and its Disastrous Effects on Racial and Ethnic Minorities,” in the appendices of
Council on Crime and Justice, “Justice, Where Art Thou: A Framework for the Future,” October 2007, p. 62,
http://www.crimeandjustice.org/researchReports/FINAL%20REPORT%2010.4.07.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008). Tonry has
written extensively about drug policies and their consequences.

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Human Rights Watch May 2008

We hope this report will encourage US political leaders and the public to grapple
forthrightly with the excessive and racially disproportionate incarceration of drug
offenders, and to develop plans to eliminate it. The first step is to reassess existing
approaches to drug abuse and to evaluate the costs and benefits of feasible, costeffective, and more equitable alternatives. Such alternatives exist, and some states
have begun to take steps in the right direction—establishing drug courts to divert
drug offenders from prison into community-based treatment programs, modifying
their sentencing laws, and commissioning studies of racial disparities in their
criminal justice systems.14 As the data presented in this report demonstrates,
however, much remains to be done.

14 See, for example, Governor’s Commission on Reducing Racial Disparities in the Wisconsin Justice System, “Final Report,”
February 2008, ftp://doaftp04.doa.state.wi.us/doadocs/web.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008); Justice Policy Institute,
“Substance Abuse Treatment and Public Safety,” January 2008,
http://www.justicepolicy.org/images/upload/08_01_REP_DrugTx_AC-PS.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008); Ryan S. King, The
Sentencing Project, “The State of Sentencing 2007,” January 2008,
http://www.sentencingproject.org/Admin/Documents/publications/sl_statesentencingreport2007.pdf (accessed April 16,
2008); Marc Mauer and Ryan S. King, The Sentencing Project, “A 25-Year Quagmire: the War on Drugs and its Impact on
American Society,” September 2007,
http://www.sentencingproject.org/Admin/Documents/publications/dp_25yearquagmire.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008).

Targeting Blacks

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II. Recommendations
Human Rights Watch urges public officials in the United States:
•

To adopt community-based sanctions and other alternatives to
incarceration for low-level drug offenders;

•

To put more resources into substance abuse treatment (making it
available in the community and in prison to all who need it) and
prevention outreach;

•

To increase investments in community educational, economic, health,
and social programs;

•

To eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offenses;

•

To adopt public health-based strategies to reduce the harms
associated with drug abuse;

•

To conduct a comprehensive analysis of racial disparities in all phases
of drug law enforcement—from arrests through incarceration—and to
bring stakeholders together to devise ways to ensure drug laws and
their enforcement do not disproportionately burden black
communities;

•

To enact legislation that, in accordance with the International
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,
prohibits policies or practices in the criminal justice system that have
either
o the purpose of restricting the exercise and enjoyment of human
rights and fundamental freedoms on the basis of race, color,
descent, or national or ethnic origin; or
o the effect of restricting the exercise and enjoyment of human
rights and fundamental freedoms on the basis of race, color,
descent, or national or ethnic origin; and

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Human Rights Watch May 2008

•

Pending enactment of such legislation, to eliminate anti-drug policies
or practices that have
o the purpose of discriminating against blacks, or
o the effect of discriminating against blacks
in violation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All
Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Targeting Blacks

8

III. Background: The War on Drugs and the
US Criminal Justice System
Since the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration launched the “war on drugs,”
federal and state measures to battle the use and sale of drugs have emphasized
arrest and incarceration rather than prevention and treatment.15 The impact on the
criminal justice system has been dramatic. Between 1980 and 2006, arrests for drug
offenses more than tripled, rising from 581,000 arrests in 1980 to 1,889,810 in
2006.16

Fig.1: Drug Abuse Violation Arrests
2,000,000
1,500,000
1,000,000
500,000
0
1980

1985

1990

1995

2000

2005

Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Uniform Crime Reports, Crime in the United States, annual.17

15 In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the national response to drug abuse was primarily one of treatment. Since then the focus
has been primarily on law enforcement. About two-thirds of the federal drug budget is allocated to interdiction, law
enforcement, and supply reduction efforts; one-third is allocated for prevention, treatment, and other demand reduction
strategies. These proportions have not varied significantly in recent years. The White House, “National Drug Control Strategy,”
February 2008, Appendix B, p. 71, http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/publications/policy/ndcs08/2008ndcs.pdf
(accessed April 16, 2008).
16 Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), “Crime in the United States, 2006,” September 2007, Table 29,
http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2006/data/table_29.html (accessed April 16, 2008).
17 Drug arrest data for 1980 to 2004 is made available by the BJS, “Drug and Crime Facts: Drug Law Violations- Enforcement,”
http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/dcf/tables/arrtot.htm (accessed April 16, 2008). 2005 and 2006 arrest data is made available
by the FBI, “Crime in the United States, 2005,” http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/05cius/data/table_29.html, “Crime in the United
States, 2006,” http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2006/data/table_29.html (both accessed April 16, 2008).

9

Human Rights Watch May 2008

In some states, the growth in drug arrests has been even more dramatic. For example,
drug arrests in Illinois quintupled between the mid-1980s and 2000,18 and
quadrupled in Minnesota between 1985 and 2005.19
The war on drugs was part of a larger “tough on crime” policy approach whose
advocates believed harsh mandatory punishments were needed to restore law and
order to America. Many factors beyond drug use and abuse encouraged politicians
and public officials to embrace tough mandatory sentences for drug crimes,
including the deterioration of inner cities, racial tensions, fear of crime, an
unwillingness to tackle social inequalities, the willingness to use crime as a partisan
issue, and intense media pressures—what a group of leading criminologists have
called a “‘perfect storm’ that drove the imprisonment binge.”20 New laws increased
the likelihood of a prison sentence even for low-level offenses, increased the length
of prison sentences, and required prisoners to serve a greater proportion of their
sentences. This occurred for drug offenses as well as crimes of violence. In particular,
laws establishing mandatory minimum sentences for drug law violations were
enacted that replaced judicial discretion with fixed sentences determined by one or
two factors (for example, the quantity and type of drugs involved in the offense).21
One result of the new drug laws22 was a soaring prison population, as greater
proportions of drug offenders received prison sentences and the length of
incarceration increased. Between 1980 and 1998 the total number of new
admissions of drug offenders to state and federal prison exceeded 1.5 million.23
Between 1980 and 2003 the number of drug offenders in state prisons grew
18 Drug arrests rose from 10,000 in the mid-1980s to 50,000 in 2000. Tim Whitney, Illinois Criminal Justice Information
Authority and TASC, “Disproportionate Sentencing of Minority Drug Offenders in Illinois,” November 17, 2005,
http://www.icjia.state.il.us/public/pdf/ResearchReports/Disproportionate%20Sentencing%20Report.pdf (accessed April 16,
2008).
19 Drug arrests rose from 5,372 in 1985 to 20,015 in 2005. Council on Crime and Justice, “Justice, Where Art Thou,” p. 15.
20 James Austin, The JFA Institute, “Unlocking America: Why and How to Reduce America’s Prison Population,” November
2007, p. 6, http://www.jfa-associates.com/publications/srs/UnlockingAmerica.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008).
21 Human Rights Watch, Cruel and Usual: Disproportionate Sentences for New York Drug Offenders, vol. 9, no. 2(B), March
1997, http://hrw.org/reports/1997/usny/.
22 Among the 50 states, statutory penalties for violating sale and possession provisions for drugs “vary greatly by substance,
by the quantity of the substance sold or possessed, and by the type of offense (i.e., sale or possession). For example, the
maximum statutory penalty for the sale of a standard retail amount of cocaine, methamphetamine, or ecstasy ranges from one
year of imprisonment to life in prison.” ImpactTeen Illicit Drug Team, Andrews University and the RAND Corporation, “Illicit
Drug Policies: Selected laws from the 50 States,” January 2002, p. 11,
http://www.rwjf.org/files/publications/other/DrugPoliciesReport.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008).
23 Human Rights Watch, Punishment and Prejudice, p. 14, fig. 5.

Targeting Blacks

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twelvefold.24 In 2006 an estimated 248,547 men and women were serving time in
state prisons for drug offenses, constituting 19.5 percent of all state prisoners.25
In some states, the increase was even greater. For example, the number of drug
offenders sentenced to prison in Illinois was 14 times greater in 2002 than 20 years
earlier.26 In 1990, prison admissions for drug crimes constituted 27 percent of Illinois
prison admissions; by 2000, they constituted 40 percent.27
Countrywide, in 2002 the maximum prison sentence for a person convicted of a
felony drug offense in state court was 48 months; for possession alone, the
maximum sentence was 35 months.28
Few of the men and women who enter prison because of drug offenses are kingpins
or major traffickers. The overwhelming preponderance are low-level non-violent
offenders, primarily street-level dealers, couriers, and other bit players in the drug
trade. In New York State, for example, 63 percent of the men and women sent to
prison for drug offenses in 1998 had been convicted of the lowest level of drug
offense; one in four were convicted of simple possession.29 A federal survey of state
prisoners nationwide revealed that among drug offenders, 58 percent had no history
of violence or high-level drug activity; 35 percent had criminal histories limited to
drug offenses; 21 percent were serving a sentence for a first-time offense; and 43
percent were convicted of drug possession. Half of the drug offenders who were
24 The number of drug offenders in state prison rose from 19,000 to 250,900. Mauer and King, “25-Year Quagmire,” fig. 2.
25 William J. Sabol, Ph.D., BJS, “Prisoners in 2006,” December 2007, Table 11, pp. 8-9,
http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/p06.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008). There are currently 93,751 federal prisoners doing
time for drug offenses. Ibid., Table 12. The number of drug offenders held in local jails also increased dramatically: in 1983,
9.3 percent of jail inmates were drug offenders. By 2002 the figure was 24.7 percent. BJS, “Sourcebook of Criminal Justice
Statistics 2003,” Table 6.19, http://www.albany.edu/sourcebook/pdf/t619.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008).
26 Whitney, “Disproportionate Sentencing of Minority Drug Offenders in Illinois,” p. 3.
27 Arthur J. Lurigio, Ph.D., Loyola University and TASC, “The Disproportionate Incarceration of African Americans for Drug
Crimes: The Illinois Perspective,” November 2000, p. 6,
http://www.icjia.state.il.us/public/pdf/ResearchReports/Disproportionate%20Incarceration%20of%20African%20Americans
%20for%20Drug%20Crimes.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008).
28 The sentence lengths provided are the mean for maximum sentences. Matthew R. Durose and Patrick A. Langan, Ph.D., BJS,
“Felony Sentences in State Courts, 2002,” December 2004, Table 3, p. 4, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/fssc02.pdf
(accessed April 16, 2008).
29 Human Rights Watch, “Who Goes to Prison for Drug Offenses? A Rebuttal to the New York State District Attorney’s
Association,” 1999, http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/drugs/ny-drugs.htm; “Official Data Reveal Most New York Drug
Offenders are Nonviolent,” Human Rights Watch news release, January 7, 1999,
http://hrw.org/english/docs/1999/01/07/usdom793.htm, revealing that 80 percent of the drug offenders who received
prison sentences for drug offenses had never been convicted of a violent crime.

11

Human Rights Watch May 2008

surveyed reported their drug activity consisted of selling or helping to sell drugs to
others for their use, and less than a third (28.5 percent) reported activity that might
constitute a higher-level role (for example, distributing or helping distribute drugs to
dealers).30
More than two decades of incarcerating drug offenders has apparently had little
impact on the demand for illicit drugs. In surveys carried out during the years 19911993, an average of 5.8 percent of persons surveyed reported using an illicit drug
during the previous month.31 In the same survey carried out in 2006, 8.3 percent of
persons said they had used an illicit drug in the previous month.32 During 2002-2006,
an estimated 500,000 men and women entered prison on drug charges.33 Yet during
that period, the proportion of persons age 12 and older who used illicit drugs
remained essentially unchanged.34 Even the use of crack, so highly targeted by law
enforcement since the mid-1980s, remains surprisingly prevalent: in 2006 an
estimated 702,000 people were using it.35 As currently carried out—that is, with an
emphasis on law enforcement rather than substance abuse treatment—punitive antidrug policies may be as futile as they are unfair.
They are also expensive. The average annual operating cost per inmate in state
prison is $22,650.36 Substance abuse treatment is far less expensive—prison costs
30 These figures were developed by The Sentencing Project from data in the 1997 Survey of Inmates conducted by the Bureau
of Justice Statistics (BJS). Ryan S. King and Marc Mauer, The Sentencing Project, “Distorted Priorities: Drug Offenders in State
Prisons,” September 2002, pp. 2, 4, and 7,
http://www.sentencingproject.org/Admin%5CDocuments%5Cpublications%5Cdp_distortedpriorities.pdf (accessed April 16,
2008). Federal drug offenders are also predominantly low-level: 61.5 percent of federal crack cocaine offenders and 53.1
percent of federal powder cocaine offenders are street-level dealers, couriers, lookouts, or perform other low-level functions,
for example. USSC, “Report to Congress: Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy,” May 2007, figs. 2-4, p. 19,
http://www.ussc.gov/r_congress/cocaine2007.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008).
31 SAMHSA, “Substance Abuse in States and Metropolitan Areas: Model Based Estimates from the 1991-1993 National
Household Surveys on Drug Abuse,” September 1996, Exhibits 3.1-3.4, http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/96state/ch3.htm#Ch3.2
(accessed April 16, 2008).
32 The persons surveyed were age 12 or older. SAMHSA, “Results from the 2006 National Survey,” Appendix G, Selected
Prevalence Tables, Table G.6.
33 Since 1990 state drug admissions have averaged 100,000 and upwards a year. Human Rights Watch, Punishment and

Prejudice, fig. 5. In 2003 there were 168,000 drug admissions in 34 NCRP reporting states.

34 SAMHSA, “Results from the 2006 National Survey,” Appendix G: Selected Prevalence Tables, Table G.2 (lifetime), Table G.4
(past year), and Table G.6 (prior month). These tables provide percentages of the population age 12 or older using selected
drugs for the years 2002 through 2006.
35 This figure is an increase from the 567,000 estimated users in 2002. Ibid., Table G.5.
36 James J. Stephen, BJS, “State Prison Expenditures,” June 2004, p. 1, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/spe01.pdf,
(accessed February 25, 2008). These figures do not count capital outlays. In 2001, the total operating costs and capital outlays
for state adult correctional facilities amounted to $29.5 billion.

Targeting Blacks

12

five to six times more than non-residential drug treatment. 37 It is also more effective
at reducing addiction and associated crime. As the director of the National Institute
on Drug Abuse recently pointed out, “Comprehensive drug treatment works. It not
only reduces drug use but also curtails criminal behavior and recidivism.”38
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, every dollar invested in addiction
treatment programs yields a return of four to seven dollars in reduced costs of drugrelated crimes.39 The Justice Policy Institute has calculated that California may have
saved more than $350 million in the five years after it legislated the use of drug
treatment instead of prison for non-violent offenders convicted of simple
possession.40

37 The average daily cost per inmate in a state prison is $62.05. Ibid. The mean cost per client day for outpatient drug
treatment was $10.32 (methadone) and $9.17 (non-methadone). SAMHSA, “The ADSS Cost Study: Costs of Substance Abuse
Treatment in the Specialty Sector,” 2003, Table 4.2, p. 21, http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/ADSS/ADSSCostStudy.pdf (accessed
February 25, 2008).
38 Nora D. Volkow, “Treat the Addict, Cut the Crime Rate,” The Washington Post, August 19, 2006. Volkow cites SAMHSA
reports that substance abuse treatment can dramatically cut drug abuse and reduce criminal activity.
39 US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “NIDA InfoFacts: Treatment
Approaches for Drug Addiction,” August 2006, http://www.nida.nih.gov/PDF/InfoFacts/Treatment06.pdf (accessed April 16,
2008). The Washington State Institute for Public Policy concluded that a dollar spent on community-based drug treatment
yields an estimated $18.52 in benefits. Steve Aos, Washington State Institute for Public Policy, “The Criminal Justice System
in Washington State: Incarceration Rates, Taxpayer Costs, Crime Rates and Prison Economics,” January 2003,
http://www.wsipp.wa.gov/rptfiles/SentReport2002.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008). These and other examples of the costeffectiveness of substance abuse treatment are presented in Justice Policy Institute, “Substance Abuse Treatment and Public
Safety,” January 2008, http://www.justicepolicy.org/images/upload/08_01_REP_DrugTx_AC-PS.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008).
40 In 2001 the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act of 2000, or Proposition 36, went into effect in California, requiring
drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration for non-violent adult offenders convicted of simple drug possession. In the
following five years, the rate of incarceration for drug possession in the state dropped by 34.3 percent. Scott Ehlers and Jason
Ziedenberg, Justice Policy Institute, “Proposition 36: Five years later,” April 2006,
http://www.justicepolicy.org/images/upload/06-04_REP_CAProp36FiveYearsLater_DP-AC.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008).

13

Human Rights Watch May 2008

IV. Race and the Incarceration of Drug Offenders
The punitive anti-drug policies of the last 20 years bear heavy responsibility
for the extremely high and disproportionate representation of black
Americans in the US prison population.41

Drug Offenses and Black Incarceration
Drug offenses have played a greater role in black incarceration than white:
•

38.2 percent of all blacks entering prison in 2003 with new sentences had
been convicted of drug offenses, compared to 25.4 percent of whites. (Table
1).

•

Between 1990 and 2000, drug offenses accounted for 27 percent of the total
increase in black inmates in state prison and only 15 percent of the increase
in white inmates.42

•

Among blacks currently serving state prison sentences, 22.9 percent were
convicted of drug offenses; among whites, 14.8 percent. 43

In some individual states, the impact of drug policies on black incarceration has
been far greater: for example, in Illinois, the number of black admissions for drug
offenses grew six-fold between 1990 and 2000, while the number of whites admitted
for drug offenses remained relatively stable.44

41 Racial disproportions in US incarceration have been extensively documented. For example, black men are incarcerated
under state or federal jurisdiction at 6.2 times the rate of white men, and black women are incarcerated at 3.1 times the rate of
white women. Sabol, BJS, “Prisoners in 2006,” Table 10, p. 8. The rate of sentenced prisoners under state or federal
jurisdiction per 100,000 residents is 487 for white men, compared to 3,042 for black men. The rate for white women is 48,
compared to 148 for black women. Ibid., Appendix, Table 7, p. 23. About one in every 33 black men is a sentenced prisoner,
compared to one in every 205 white men. Ibid., p. 8. Approximately 16.6 percent of adult African American men have been in
prison, compared to 2.6 percent of white men. Bonczar, “Prevalence of Imprisonment in the U.S. Population 1974-2001,” p. 1.
42 Paige M. Harrison and Allen J. Beck, Ph.D., BJS, “Prisoners in 2001,” July 2002, Table 19, p. 13,
http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/p01.pdf (accessed April 18, 2008).
43 Sabol, BJS, “Prisoners in 2006,” Table 11, p.8.
44 Lurigio, “ Disproportionate Incarceration of African Americans for Drug Crimes: The Illinois Perspective,” p. 6.

Targeting Blacks

14

Table 1: Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses as a Percentage of
All Admissions, by Race and Gender, 2003
State
Alabama
California
Colorado
Florida
Georgia
Hawaii
Illinois
Iowa
Kentucky
Louisiana
Maryland
Michigan
Minnesota
Mississippi
Missouri
Nebraska
Nevada
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Oklahoma
Oregon
Pennsylvania
South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee
Texas
Utah
Virginia
Washington
West Virginia
Wisconsin
Total*

White
Male
29.5%
28.2%
20.9%
18.4%
27.7%
12.0%
24.2%
32.6%
28.5%
26.6%
22.5%
10.6%
33.8%
34.5%
29.4%
30.1%
14.3%
19.0%
30.2%
23.9%
12.7%
39.5%
41.8%
13.7%
24.7%
16.3%
30.1%
16.8%
23.5%
36.8%
13.7%
30.0%
9.2%
19.1%
23.9%

White
Female
40.7%
35.1%
38.9%
37.1%
40.5%
21.7%
32.3%
36.1%
43.5%
38.8%
26.0%
18.3%
48.9%
39.2%
43.2%
38.9%
29.2%
30.6%
49.4%
43.0%
24.2%
62.9%
59.1%
25.9%
31.0%
18.5%
33.3%
28.1%
38.8%
52.5%
21.6%
44.8%
15.8%
25.7%
35.9%

White
All
31.2%
29.2%
23.3%
20.5%
29.5%
13.6%
25.3%
32.9%
30.8%
28.1%
22.8%
11.2%
35.3%
35.3%
31.1%
31.1%
16.2%
19.9%
32.2%
25.9%
14.4%
42.3%
44.5%
14.8%
25.2%
16.7%
30.6%
18.8%
25.7%
38.9%
14.9%
31.9%
10.1%
19.7%
25.4%

Black
Male
32.7%
32.9%
35.7%
39.0%
34.8%
31.1%
48.2%
22.9%
39.3%
44.2%
50.7%
22.9%
28.2%
36.3%
38.2%
17.2%
19.2%
24.2%
55.1%
43.9%
27.3%
15.6%
42.3%
11.6%
43.6%
33.0%
32.6%
30.6%
38.8%
35.1%
31.8%
43.1%
31.8%
44.3%
38.3%

Black
Female
29.8%
32.1%
46.5%
36.8%
26.6%
33.3%
42.4%
10.5%
38.6%
39.9%
54.2%
17.1%
30.4%
36.4%
27.6%
32.6%
15.7%
0.0%
53.8%
54.3%
30.2%
20.0%
52.5%
26.3%
31.7%
20.8%
45.5%
29.2%
38.7%
70.0%
35.4%
55.5%
31.8%
53.3%
36.7%

Black
All
32.4%
32.8%
37.3%
38.8%
34.0%
31.4%
47.5%
21.4%
39.2%
43.9%
50.9%
22.5%
28.3%
36.3%
37.5%
18.9%
18.8%
21.1%
55.0%
44.6%
27.6%
16.2%
43.6%
13.4%
43.1%
31.8%
35.1%
30.5%
38.8%
38.0%
32.2%
44.5%
31.8%
44.9%
38.2%

Source: National Corrections Reporting Program, 2003.
* Total calculated on basis of 34 reporting states.

15

Human Rights Watch May 2008

Racial Composition of Drug Offender Admissions
Among the 34 states reporting new admissions to the National Corrections Reporting
Program (NCRP) in 2003, there were a total of 111,247 adult men and women who
entered state prison that year convicted of drug offenses—possession, sales,
manufacturing, or other drug related offenses. The new drug offender prison
admissions included 59,535 black men and women (53.5 percent of the total) and
37,003 white men and women (33.3 percent of the total). (See Table 2 for the number
of prison admissions for drug offenders by race in each of the 34 states, and Figure 2
for the racial composition of drug offender admissions).45

Racial Disparities in Rates of Admission
Because the proportion of blacks and whites in state populations varies
considerably, rates of admission for drug offenses relative to the black and white
population of each state present a clearer picture of the racial impact of drug law
enforcement than the racial composition of admissions. According to our analysis of
the 2003 admissions, as shown in Figure 3, the total rate of prison admission for
blacks in the 34 reporting states46 was 256.2 per 100,000 adult black residents.47 For
whites, the rate was 25.3 per 100,000 adults. The black rate of admission has grown
much faster than the white rate: between 1986 and 2003 the rate of admission to
prison for drug offenses for blacks quintupled; the white rate did not quite triple.48

45 Other racial backgrounds—Indian American, Asian, Native Hawaiians, other—as well as admissions where race was marked
unknown or left blank account for the remainder.
46 The “total” rate is calculated on the basis of all prison admissions for drug offenses in the 34 states and the combined
populations of those states. Throughout this report, “totals” are calculated on the basis of all the 34 states’ data combined.
They do not reflect averages. We do not know the extent to which the figures for the 34 reporting states would be consistent
with figures for the non-reporting states.
47 Throughout this report, all calculations of rates relative to population are based on adult residents in the state. See
Chapter IX, Methodology.
48 In 1986 the rate of admission for blacks for drug offenses was 49 per 100,000 black adults, and for whites it was 9 per
100,000 white adults. Vincent Schiraldi, Barry Holman, and Phillip Beatty, The Sentencing Project, “Poor Prescription: The
Costs of Imprisoning Drug Offenders in the United States,” p. 7, http://www.cjcj.org/drug/ (accessed April 24, 2008). See also
Pamela E. Oliver, Ph.D., “Racial Patterns in State Trends in Prison Admissions 1983-2003: Drug and Non-drug Sentences and
Revocations,” http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~oliver/RACIAL/StateTrends/RacialPatterns_Intro_National.pdf (accessed February
19, 2008). Dr. Oliver uses data from the National Corrections Reporting Program to develop national and state-by-state graphs
depicting prison admissions for participating states over a 20-year period.

Targeting Blacks

16

Table 2: Number of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses, by Race, 2003
State

White

Black

Other

Total

Alabama
California
Colorado
Florida
Georgia
Hawaii
Illinois
Iowa
Kentucky
Louisiana
Maryland
Michigan
Minnesota
Mississippi
Missouri
Nebraska
Nevada
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Oklahoma
Oregon
Pennsylvania

1,261
5,341
634
3,009
1,502
39
1,982
625
1,799
616
585
565
805
1,080
1,321
432
247
126
1,019
1,242
1,170
247
1,869
285
1,233

1,463
4,777
380
5,740
3,005
16
8,052
98
847
2,021
4,200
1,054
305
1,706
783
80
131
8
3,600
3,870
3,419
6
725
21
1,732

6
7,524
490
216
30
177
723
10
9
12
44
12
59
9
9
20
170
8
542
1,395
318
44
359
32
13

2,730
17,642
1,504
8,965
4,537
232
10,757
733
2,655
2,649
4,829
1,631
1,169
2,795
2,113
532
548
142
5,161
6,507
4,907
297
2,953
338
2,978

South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee

618
305
804

2,223
20
1,241

51
41
72

2,892
366
2,117

Texas
Utah

2,646
653

4,136
46

2,090
20

8,872
719

Virginia
Washington
West Virginia
Wisconsin

735
1,787
116
305

2,404
665
61
700

45
144
1
14

3,184
2,596
178
1,019

Total*

37,003

59,535

14,709

111,247

Source: National Corrections Reporting Program, 2003.
* Total calculated on basis of 34 reporting states.

17

Human Rights Watch May 2008

Fig.2: Racial Composition of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses, 2003
Alabama

46.2%

California

53.6%

30.3%

Colorado

27.1%

White

42.2%

25.3%

Black

Florida

33.6%

64.0%

Georgia

33.1%

66.2%

Hawaii

16.8%

Illinois

6.9%

18.4%

74.9%

Iowa

85.3%

Kentucky
Louisiana

31.9%

23.3%

Maryland

76.3%

12.1%

87.0%

Michigan

34.6%

64.6%

Minnesota

68.9%

Mississippi

26.1%

38.6%

Missouri

61.0%
62.5%

37.1%

Nebraska

81.2%

Nevada

15.0%

45.1%

23.9%

New Hampshire

88.7%

New Jersey

19.7%

New York

19.1%

North Carolina

5.6%
69.8%

59.5%

23.8%

69.7%

North Dakota

83.2%

Oklahoma

2.0%

63.3%

24.6%

Oregon

84.3%

Pennsylvania

6.2%

41.4%

South Carolina

58.2%

21.4%

76.9%

South Dakota

83.3%

Tennessee

5.5%

38.0%

Texas

58.6%

29.8%

46.6%

Utah

90.8%

Virginia

23.1%

6.4%
75.5%

Washington

68.8%

West Virginia

25.6%

65.2%

Wisconsin

34.3%

29.9%

Total

68.7%

33.3%

0%

10%

20%

53.5%

30%

40%

Source: National Corrections Reporting Program, 2003.

Targeting Blacks

13.4%

67.8%

18

50%

60%

70%

80%

90%

100%

Table 3: Rates of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses, by Gender and Race, 2003
(Rates calculated per 100,000 residents of each race and gender)
State
Alabama
California
Colorado
Florida
Georgia
Hawaii
Illinois
Iowa
Kentucky
Louisiana
Maryland
Michigan
Minnesota
Mississippi
Missouri
Nebraska
Nevada
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Oklahoma
Oregon
Pennsylvania
South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee
Texas
Utah
Virginia
Washington
West Virginia
Wisconsin
Total*

White
Male
83.5
43.8
31.9
44.9
55.5
20.0
44.2
53.7
102.6
47.7
39.7
16.3
40.8
132.4
60.9
62.3
26.6
24.2
34.7
19.5
36.7
90.1
143.7
19.4
27.6
47.3
99.5
33.8
31.1
70.7
28.4
74.4
14.3
14.4
42.1

White
Female
19.9
9.2
8.9
11.2
12.7
7.7
8.5
6.4
26.4
9.1
4.1
2.1
6.1
29.0
11.6
10.6
8.2
3.1
6.2
3.7
12.2
19.2
35.9
3.8
3.1
9.7
19.3
10.9
8.6
15.2
6.9
15.6
3.3
1.9
9.1

White
All
50.6
26.5
20.4
27.5
33.9
14.2
26.0
29.3
63.1
27.8
21.3
9.0
23.1
79.2
35.4
35.9
17.6
13.3
19.9
11.3
24.2
54.4
88.3
11.4
14.8
28.0
58.8
22.0
19.7
42.8
17.4
44.7
8.6
8.0
25.3

Black
Male
363.6
515.1
456.5
628.2
345.3
122.0
1,227.6
402.7
725.8
414.0
760.5
218.8
412.1
477.7
129.8
277.3
211.5
167.0
822.1
333.9
519.5
281.7
684.0
66.8
407.7
537.2
597.6
371.9
430.6
468.6
435.2
719.8
245.9
664.8
495.5

Black
Female
26.1
62.5
117.2
50.7
21.8
25.3
109.4
28.8
88.5
27.4
50.1
11.0
38.5
41.1
14.3
60.7
19.4
0.0
59.5
24.1
50.7
91.5
119.5
24.7
13.0
30.8
387.6
28.9
51.4
117.7
49.5
133.5
32.4
51.5
44.0

Black
All
177.2
280.8
294.8
321.5
169.9
82.5
613.8
224.3
392.3
202.9
370.5
106.3
233.6
239.4
95.4
166.2
115.5
95.2
409.4
161.8
264.2
209.2
392.4
47.5
193.7
260.0
526.3
184.7
230.2
322.4
229.4
449.7
140.0
340.3
256.2

Source: National Corrections Reporting Program, 2003.
* Total calculated on basis of 34 reporting states.

19

Human Rights Watch May 2008

Fig.3: Rates of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses, by Race, 2003
(Rates calculated per 100,000 residents of each race)
50.6

Alabama
California

26.5

Colorado

20.4

Florida

27.5

177.2
280.8

14.2

Hawaii

169.9
82.5

Illinois

26.0

Iowa

29.3

613.8
224.3

63.1

Kentucky

392.3

27.8

Louisiana

202.9

21.3

Maryland

370.5

9.0

Michigan

106.3

23.1

Minnesota

233.6

79.2

Mississippi
35.4

Missouri

239.4

95.4

35.9

Nebraska

166.2

17.6

Nevada

115.5

13.3

New Hampshire

95.2

19.9

New Jersey

409.4

11.3

New York

161.8

24.2

North Carolina

264.2

54.4

North Dakota

209.2

88.3

Oklahoma

392.4

11.4

Oregon

47.5
14.8

Pennsylvania

193.7

28.0

South Carolina

260.0

58.8

South Dakota

22.0

Tennessee

526.3

184.7

19.7

Texas

230.2

42.8

Utah

322.4

17.4

Virginia

229.4

44.7

Washington
West Virginia

8.6

Wisconsin

8.0

449.7
140.0
340.3

25.3

Total
0

256.2
100

200

300

Source: National Corrections Reporting Program, 2003.

Targeting Blacks

Black Rate

321.5

33.9

Georgia

White Rate

294.8

20

400

500

600

700

The state rates for drug offender prison admissions for whites ranged from a low of 8
(Wisconsin) to a high of 88.3 (Oklahoma) per 100,000 white residents. (Table 3). The
rates for drug offender admissions for blacks ranged from a low of 47.5 (Oregon) to a
high of 613.8 (Illinois) per 100,000 black residents. The five states with the highest
black drug offender admission rates were Illinois (613.8), South Dakota (526.3),
Washington (449.7), New Jersey (409.4), and Oklahoma (392.4). Table 3 also shows
that in every one of the 34 states, blacks were sent to prison for drug offenses at far
higher rates than whites in that state.
In Figure 4, we present the ratio of black drug admission rates to white drug
admission rates in the 34 states. Overall, blacks were sent to state prison for drug
offenses in 2003 at 10.1 times the rate of whites. The disparity between black and
white rates of admission was lowest in Missouri, where the black rate was still 2.7
times greater than the white rate. In the state with the highest disparity, Wisconsin,
blacks entered prison on drug charges at 42.4 times the rate of whites. The rate of
black drug offender admissions was more than 20 times that of whites in Illinois
(23.6) and New Jersey (20.6). As shown in Table 4, the 10 states with the worst ratios
between the rates at which blacks and whites were sent to prison for drug offenses
were: Wisconsin (42.4), Illinois (23.6), New Jersey (20.6), Maryland (17.4), West
Virginia (16.3), Colorado (14.4), New York (14.3), Virginia (13.2), Pennsylvania (13.1),
and Michigan (11.8).
We analyzed the admissions data to determine whether some states send drug
offenders of both races to prison at higher rates than other states, even though the
drug admission rates of whites and blacks may be of a considerably different
magnitude. As shown in Figure 5, there is a weak correlation between drug
admission rates for blacks and for whites in each state.49 Illinois and New Jersey, for
example, have very high rates of black admissions but relatively low rates of white
admissions. Conversely, Alabama and Mississippi have relatively high rates of white
admissions and relatively low rates of black admissions. Oklahoma, in contrast,
sends both whites and blacks to prison for drug offenses at relatively high rates.

49 If there were a robust correlation, the states would cluster closely along a line rising diagonally from a low on the left side
of the figure to a high on the right side.

21

Human Rights Watch May 2008

Fig.4: Ratio of Black:White Rates of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses, 2003
(Rates calculated per 100,000 residents of each race)
3.5

Alabama

10.6

California
Colorado

14.4
11.7

Florida
Georgia

5.0
5.8

Hawaii

23.6

Illinois
7.7

Iowa

6.2

Kentucky

7.3

Louisiana

17.4

Maryland
11.8

Michigan

10.1

Minnesota
Mississippi

3.0

Missouri

2.7
4.6

Nebraska
Nevada

6.6

New Hampshire

7.1
20.6

New Jersey
14.3

New York
10.9

North Carolina
3.8

North Dakota

4.4

Oklahoma

4.1

Oregon

13.1

Pennsylvania
South Carolina

9.3

South Dakota

9.0
8.4

Tennessee

11.7

Texas
Utah

7.5
13.2

Virginia
Washington

10.1
16.3

West Virginia
Wisconsin

42.4

Total

10.1
0

5

10

15

20

Source: National Corrections Reporting Program, 2003.

Targeting Blacks

22

25

30

35

40

45

Table 4: Ranking of States by Ratio of Black:White Prison Admission Rates for
Drug Offenses, 2003
(Rates calculated per 100,000 residents of each race)
State
Wisconsin
Illinois
New Jersey
Maryland
West Virginia
Colorado
New York
Virginia
Pennsylvania
Michigan
Florida
Texas
North Carolina
California
Minnesota
Washington
South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee
Iowa
Utah
Louisiana
New Hampshire
Nevada
Kentucky
Hawaii
Georgia
Nebraska
Oklahoma
Oregon
North Dakota
Alabama
Mississippi
Missouri

Black:White Rate Ratios
42.4
23.6
20.6
17.4
16.3
14.4
14.3
13.2
13.1
11.8
11.7
11.7
10.9
10.6
10.1
10.1
9.3
9.0
8.4
7.7
7.5
7.3
7.1
6.6
6.2
5.8
5.0
4.6
4.4
4.1
3.8
3.5
3.0
2.7

Source: National Corrections Reporting Program, 2003.

23

Human Rights Watch May 2008

Fig.5: Correlation of White and Black Rates of Prison Admissions for
Drug Offenses, 2003
(Rates calculated per 100,000 adults of each race)

700.0

Illinois

600.0

South Dakota
500.0

Bla ck Ra te

Washington
New Jersey

400.0

Kentucky
Oklahoma

Maryland
Wisconsin
Colorado

300.0

North Carolina

Florida

Utah

California
South Carolina

Minnesota Total
Virginia Texas Iowa
Pennsylvania
Louisiana

200.0

Tennessee
New York
West Virginia
Michigan Nevada

Georgia

Hawaii
Oregon

North Dakota
Alabama

Nebraska

New Hampshire

100.0

Mississippi

Missouri

0.0
0.0

20.0

40.0

W hite Ra te
Source: National Corrections Reporting Program, 2003.

Targeting Blacks

24

60.0

80.0

100.0

Race and Gender
Racial disparities in incarceration for drug offenses are even more evident when the
data analysis incorporates gender. As shown in Table 1, drug offenses in 2003
accounted for about two in ten white men entering prison that year (23.9 percent)
but nearly four in ten black men (38.3 percent). The differences were less marked
among women: drug offenses accounted for 35.9 percent of white women entering
prison that year and 36.7 percent of black women.
The proportion of black men sent to prison in 2003 because of drug offenses ranged
from a low of one in 10 (Oregon, 11.6 percent) to a high of one in two (New Jersey,
55.1 percent, and Maryland, 50.7 percent). The proportion of white men sent to
prison because of drug offenses was never higher than 41.8 percent (Oklahoma).
Drug offenses play a greater role in sending women to prison than men. In seven
states (Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Utah, Washington, and
Wisconsin), drug sentences accounted for 50 percent or more of all black women
sent to prison in 2003. Convictions for drug offenses accounted for 50 percent or
more of the new admissions among white women in three states (North Dakota,
Oklahoma, and Utah).
We computed the prison admission rates for drug offenses per 100,000 adult
residents for the 34 NCRP participating states, disaggregating the data by gender and
race. As shown in Table 3, the drug admission rates for the 34 states together were
495.5 for black men, 44.0 for black women, 42.1 for white men and 9.1 for white
women. Drug admission rates for black men ranged from a low of 66.8 per 100,000
black adult males in Oregon, to a high of 1,227.6 in Illinois. For white men, the rates
of drug offender admissions ranged from a low of 14.3 per 100,000 white male adult
residents in West Virginia to a high of 143.7 in Oklahoma. The highest black male
rate is 8.5 times greater than the highest white male rate. The rates at which black
women were sent to prison for drug offenses ranged from a low of 11.0 per 100,000
black female adults in Michigan50 to a remarkably high 387.6 in South Dakota. The
lowest rate for white women was 1.9 in Wisconsin and the highest was 35.9 in

50 Excluding New Hampshire, which had an admission rate of zero for black women.

25

Human Rights Watch May 2008

Oklahoma. (The contrast between the black and white rates for men and women in
each state is displayed graphically in Figures 6 and 7).
Among the 34 states, black men were admitted to prison on drug charges at 11.8
times the rate of white men. (Table 5). The lowest ratio of black to white male drug
admission rates was 2.1, in Missouri, with the highest in Wisconsin, at 46.1. That is,
a black man was twice as likely as a white man to be sent to prison on drug charges
in Missouri and 46 times as likely in Wisconsin.
Marked racial disparities exist among female offenders as well, although the
magnitude of the disparity is smaller. As seen in Table 5, black women are sent to
prison on drug charges at 4.8 times the rate of white women. In five states (Colorado,
Illinois, Maryland, South Dakota, and Wisconsin), black women are sent to prison on
drug charges at more than 10 times the rate of white women, with the greatest
disparities in South Dakota (the rate at which black women entered prison for drug
offenses was 20 times greater than that of white women) and Wisconsin (black
women’s rate was 27.6 times greater than that of white women).

Targeting Blacks

26

Fig.6: Male Rates of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses, by Race, 2003
(Rates calculated per 100,000 male residents of each race)
83.5

Alabama

363.6

43.8

California

515.1

31.9

Colorado

456.5

WhiteRate

44.9

Florida

55.5

Georgia

20.0

Hawaii

345.3
122.0

Illinois

44.2

Iowa

53.7

1227.6
402.7

102.6

Kentucky

725.8

47.7

Louisiana

414.0

39.7

Maryland

760.5

16.3

Michigan

218.8

40.8

Minnesota

412.1

Mississippi

132.4

Missouri

60.9
129.8
62.3

Nebraska
Nevada

26.6

New Hampshire

24.2

New Jersey

34.7

477.7

277.3
211.5

167.0
822.1

19.5

New York

333.9

36.7

North Carolina

519.5

90.1

North Dakota

281.7

143.7

Oklahoma

684.0

19.4
66.8
27.6

Oregon
Pennsylvania

407.7

47.3

South Carolina

537.2

99.5

South Dakota

597.6

33.8

Tennessee

371.9

31.1

Texas

430.6

70.7

Utah

468.6

28.4

Virginia

435.2

74.4

Washington
West Virginia

14.3

Wisconsin

14.4

719.8
245.9
664.8

42.1

Total

BlackRate

628.2

495.5

1,300

1,200

1,100

1,000

900

800

700

600

500

400

300

200

100

0

Source: National Corrections Reporting Program, 2003.

27

Human Rights Watch May 2008

Fig.7: Female Rates of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses, by Race, 2003
(Rates calculated per 100,000 female residents of each race)
19.9
26.1

Alabama
California

9.2

Colorado

8.9

62.5
117.2

11.2

Florida

7.7

Hawaii
Illinois

8.5

Iowa

6.4

Kentucky
9.1

Louisiana

25.3
109.4
28.8
26.4

4.1

Michigan

2.1
11.0
6.1

Missouri
Nebraska

New Jersey
New York

50.1

38.5
29.0
41.1
11.6
14.3
10.6
60.7

Mississippi

New Hampshire

8.2
19.4
3.1
0.0
6.2
24.1
12.2

South Dakota

91.5

35.9

Oklahoma

South Carolina

50.7

19.2

North Dakota

Pennsylvania

59.5

3.7

North Carolina

Oregon

88.5

27.4

Maryland

Nevada

119.5

3.8

24.7
3.1
13.0
9.7
30.8
19.3
10.9
28.9
8.6

Tennessee
Texas

387.6

51.4

15.2

Utah

6.9

Virginia

117.7
49.5

15.6

Washington
West Virginia

3.3

Wisconsin

1.9
9.1

Total

133.5

32.4
51.5
44.0

400

350

300

250

28

200

150

100

50

0

Source: National Corrections Reporting Program, 2003.

Targeting Blacks

Black Rate

12.7
21.8

Georgia

Minnesota

White Rate

50.7

Table 5: Ratio of Black:White Rates of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses
by Gender, 2003
State
Alabama
California
Colorado
Florida
Georgia
Hawaii
Illinois
Iowa
Kentucky
Louisiana
Maryland
Michigan
Minnesota
Mississippi
Missouri
Nebraska
Nevada
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Oklahoma
Oregon
Pennsylvania
South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee
Texas
Utah
Virginia
Washington
West Virginia
Wisconsin
Total*

Black:White
Male
4.4
11.8
14.3
14.0
6.2
6.1
27.7
7.5
7.1
8.7
19.2
13.4
10.1
3.6
2.1
4.4
8.0
6.9
23.7
17.1
14.2
3.1
4.8
3.5
14.8
11.3
6.0
11.0
13.9
6.6
15.3
9.7
17.2
46.1
11.8

Black:White
Female
1.3
6.8
13.2
4.5
1.7
3.3
12.8
4.5
3.4
3.0
12.3
5.2
6.3
1.4
1.2
5.8
2.4
0.0
9.6
6.5
4.2
4.8
3.3
6.5
4.2
3.2
20.0
2.6
5.9
7.7
7.1
8.5
9.9
27.6
4.8

Black:White
Total
3.5
10.6
14.4
11.7
5.0
5.8
23.6
7.7
6.2
7.3
17.4
11.8
10.1
3.0
2.7
4.6
6.6
7.1
20.6
14.3
10.9
3.8
4.4
4.1
13.1
9.3
9.0
8.4
11.7
7.5
13.2
10.1
16.3
42.4
10.1

Source: National Corrections Reporting Program, 2003.
* Total calculated on basis of 34 reporting states.

29

Human Rights Watch May 2008

V. Changes between 1996 and 2003
We have compared data from 1996, covered in our earlier report Punishment and
Prejudice, with the results from our analysis here of the 2003 data.51 Although racial
disparities in rates of incarceration for drug offenders diminished to some extent in
most of the reporting states, a comparison of the total rates for 1996 and 2003
indicates a slight worsening of the disparity nationwide.

Racial Disparities 1996-2003
As shown in Table 6, both black and white rates of prison admissions for drug
offenses dropped during this period, although that of whites dropped by a bigger
percentage. The black rate of prison admissions for drug offenses decreased 11.4
percent from 1996 to 2003, from 289.4 to 256.2 per 100,000 black adults. The white
rate of prison admissions for drug offenses decreased by 13.2 percent, from 29.1 to
25.3 per 100,000 white adults. The white rate of prison admissions for drug offenses
increased in 31 states between 1996 and 2003, and the black rate of admission
increased in 18.
The racial disparity reflected in the ratio of black-to-white drug offender prison
admission rates decreased in 30 of the 34 states, but it increased in states with large
populations such as New York and California. (Table 7). The net result is that the
racial disparity among the rates of drug offender prison admissions across the 34
states in 2003 appears to have increased slightly. In 1996 the black drug offender
prison admission rate was 9.9 times greater than that of whites. In 2003 it was 10.1
times greater. (Table 7). This slight increase in the ratio of black and white rates may,
however, reflect changes or errors in data reporting by the states, rather than a real
increase in the disparity.
There was little change in the racial composition of drug offender prison admissions
between 1996 and 2003. (Table 8). Taking the 34 reporting states together, the black
51 Human Rights Watch, Punishment and Prejudice. We have recomputed the 1996 data, to ensure the admissions data for
both 2003 and 1996 have been analyzed using the same methodology. The 1996 data presented in this report is thus in a few
places not identical to that published in Punishment and Prejudice.

Targeting Blacks

30

proportion of drug admissions to prison remained at 53.5 percent. The white
proportion of drug admissions decreased from 35.8 percent to 33.3 percent, while
the proportion of drug offenders characterized as “other” increased from 10.6
percent to 13.2 percent.
The role of drug offenses in sending blacks and whites to prison did not change
markedly between 1996 and 2003. As shown in Table 9, drug offenses accounted for
25 percent of all whites sent to prison in 1996, and 25.4 percent in 2003. For blacks
the increase was slightly greater: drug offenses accounted for 36.8 percent of all
blacks sent to prison in 1996 and 38.2 percent in 2003. The proportion of drug
offenders among all whites sent to prison increased in 29 states, whereas it
increased among black offenders in only 20 states.
Among the individual states, there were some notable changes in rates of prison
admission for white and black drug offenders during this period:
•

The white rate of drug offender prison admissions increased by more than 100
percent in 13 states. (Table 6).

•

The three states with the largest increases in prison admission rates for white
drug offenders were Minnesota (271.7 percent), Mississippi (275.4 percent),
and Tennessee (604.5 percent). (Table 6).

•

The rate of prison admissions for black drug offenders increased by more
than 100 percent in three states (North Dakota, South Dakota, and
Tennessee), and decreased by more than 50 percent in three states
(California, New Hampshire, and Oregon). (Table 6).

•

Two states had significant increases in the black-to-white ratio of drug
offender prison admissions rates: California (ratio worsened by 61.5 percent)
and New York (ratio worsened by 41.6 percent). In both states, the black and
white rates of admission to prison for drug offenders decreased between
1996 and 2003, but the white rate decreased more than the black rate.
(Tables 6, 7).

31

Human Rights Watch May 2008

Table 6: Rates of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses, by Race, 1996 and 2003
(Rates calculated per 100,000 residents of each race)
State
Alabama
California
Colorado
Florida
Georgia
Hawaii
Illinois
Iowa
Kentucky
Louisiana
Maryland
Michigan
Minnesota
Mississippi
Missouri
Nebraska
Nevada
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Oklahoma
Oregon
Pennsylvania
South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee
Texas
Utah
Virginia
Washington
West Virginia
Wisconsin
Total*

1996
19.5
121.7
11.4
14.5
13.9
10.8
10.9
12.9
27.4
19.2
10.9
6.9
6.2
21.1
13.4
19.7
19.1
11.5
15.4
22.2
14.0
15.4
33.9
9.9
9.2
14.4
28.0
3.1
13.0
20.9
14.6
33.7
5.0
6.8
29.1

White
2003
50.6
26.5
20.4
27.5
33.9
14.2
26.0
29.3
63.1
27.8
21.3
9.0
23.1
79.2
35.4
35.9
17.6
13.3
19.9
11.3
24.2
54.4
88.3
11.4
14.8
28.0
58.8
22.0
19.7
42.8
17.4
44.7
8.6
8.0
25.3

% Change
160.0%
-78.3%
79.5%
89.5%
143.3%
31.8%
137.9%
126.8%
130.4%
45.0%
95.9%
31.8%
271.7%
275.4%
164.6%
82.1%
-8.1%
15.7%
29.2%
-49.1%
72.1%
253.1%
160.3%
15.2%
60.4%
95.2%
110.0%
604.5%
51.5%
104.9%
19.6%
32.7%
69.9%
17.6%
-13.2%

Source: National Corrections Reporting Program, 2003.
* Total calculated on basis of 34 reporting states.

Targeting Blacks

32

1996
171.3
799.7
287.4
257.7
133.2
52.1
569.5
377.6
450.2
218.3
265.3
133.7
266.1
154.4
82.8
283.3
170.0
238.7
410.1
224.6
308.2
78.9
252.0
112.5
134.1
223.2
225.4
26.3
222.2
196.5
276.0
520.5
129.0
340.2
289.4

Black
2003
177.2
280.8
294.8
321.5
169.9
82.5
613.8
224.3
392.3
202.9
370.5
106.3
233.6
239.4
95.4
166.2
115.5
95.2
409.4
161.8
264.2
209.2
392.4
47.5
193.7
260.0
526.3
184.7
230.2
322.4
229.4
449.7
140.0
340.3
256.2

% Change
3.5%
-64.9%
2.6%
24.7%
27.5%
58.3%
7.8%
-40.6%
-12.9%
-7.1%
39.6%
-20.5%
-12.2%
55.0%
15.3%
-41.3%
-32.1%
-60.1%
-0.2%
-28.0%
-14.3%
165.3%
55.7%
-57.8%
44.5%
16.5%
133.5%
601.6%
3.6%
64.1%
-16.9%
-13.6%
8.5%
0.0%
-11.4%

Table 7: Ratio of Black:White Rates of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses,
1996 and 2003
(Rates calculated per 100,000 residents)
State
Alabama
California
Colorado
Florida
Georgia
Hawaii
Illinois
Iowa
Kentucky
Louisiana
Maryland
Michigan
Minnesota
Mississippi
Missouri
Nebraska
Nevada
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Oklahoma
Oregon
Pennsylvania
South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee
Texas
Utah
Virginia
Washington
West Virginia
Wisconsin
Total*

Black/White
1996
8.8
6.6
25.3
17.8
9.6
4.8
52.1
29.2
16.4
11.4
24.4
19.5
42.8
7.3
6.2
14.4
8.9
20.7
26.6
10.1
22.0
5.1
7.4
11.3
14.5
15.5
8.1
8.4
17.0
9.4
19.0
15.5
25.6
49.8
9.9

Black/White
2003
3.5
10.6
14.4
11.7
5.0
5.8
23.6
7.7
6.2
7.3
17.4
11.8
10.1
3.0
2.7
4.6
6.6
7.1
20.6
14.3
10.9
3.8
4.4
4.1
13.1
9.3
9.0
8.4
11.7
7.5
13.2
10.1
16.3
42.4
10.1

% Change
1996-2003
-60.2%
61.5%
-42.9%
-34.2%
-47.6%
20.1%
-54.7%
-73.8%
-62.2%
-35.9%
-28.7%
-39.7%
-76.4%
-58.7%
-56.4%
-67.8%
-26.1%
-65.5%
-22.8%
41.6%
-50.2%
-24.9%
-40.2%
-63.4%
-9.9%
-40.3%
11.2%
-0.4%
-31.6%
-19.9%
-30.5%
-34.9%
-36.2%
-14.9%
2.0%

Source: National Corrections Reporting Program, 2003.
* Total calculated on basis of 34 reporting states.

33

Human Rights Watch May 2008

Table 8: Racial Composition of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses,
1996 and 2003
State
Alabama
California
Colorado
Florida
Georgia
Hawaii
Illinois
Iowa
Kentucky
Louisiana
Maryland
Michigan
Minnesota
Mississippi
Missouri
Nebraska
Nevada
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Oklahoma
Oregon
Pennsylvania
South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee
Texas
Utah
Virginia
Washington
West Virginia
Wisconsin
Total*

White
26.6%
55.3%
28.4%
27.2%
22.4%
24.8%
9.5%
60.7%
45.7%
17.2%
9.8%
24.8%
48.2%
21.6%
58.6%
64.8%
43.4%
86.7%
16.5%
24.5%
14.4%
83.3%
53.7%
46.9%
41.4%
14.2%
90.2%
40.1%
21.4%
89.9%
18.0%
60.3%
55.3%
28.7%
35.8%

1996
Black
73.1%
33.3%
30.5%
71.3%
77.1%
9.8%
82.4%
31.1%
54.1%
82.2%
87.6%
75.1%
50.1%
78.3%
40.9%
34.0%
29.5%
12.4%
72.3%
52.1%
83.2%
2.4%
32.3%
9.2%
58.5%
85.5%
4.6%
59.2%
50.3%
7.4%
81.3%
32.4%
43.9%
69.4%
53.5%

Other
0.3%
11.5%
41.1%
1.5%
0.4%
65.4%
8.1%
8.2%
0.2%
0.6%
2.5%
0.1%
1.7%
0.1%
0.5%
1.2%
27.1%
0.9%
11.1%
23.4%
2.4%
14.3%
14.0%
43.9%
0.1%
0.2%
5.2%
0.8%
28.4%
2.7%
0.8%
7.2%
0.8%
2.0%
10.6%

Source: National Corrections Reporting Program, 1996 and 2003.
* Total calculated on basis of 34 reporting states.

Targeting Blacks

34

White
46.2%
30.3%
42.2%
33.6%
33.1%
16.8%
18.4%
85.3%
67.8%
23.3%
12.1%
34.6%
68.9%
38.6%
62.5%
81.2%
45.1%
88.7%
19.7%
19.1%
23.8%
83.2%
63.3%
84.3%
41.4%
21.4%
83.3%
38.0%
29.8%
90.8%
23.1%
68.8%
65.2%
29.9%
33.3%

2003
Black
53.6%
27.1%
25.3%
64.0%
66.2%
6.9%
74.9%
13.4%
31.9%
76.3%
87.0%
64.6%
26.1%
61.0%
37.1%
15.0%
23.9%
5.6%
69.8%
59.5%
69.7%
2.0%
24.6%
6.2%
58.2%
76.9%
5.5%
58.6%
46.6%
6.4%
75.5%
25.6%
34.3%
68.7%
53.5%

Other
0.2%
42.6%
32.6%
2.4%
0.7%
76.3%
6.7%
1.4%
0.3%
0.5%
0.9%
0.7%
5.0%
0.3%
0.4%
3.8%
31.0%
5.6%
10.5%
21.4%
6.5%
14.8%
12.2%
9.5%
0.4%
1.8%
11.2%
3.4%
23.6%
2.8%
1.4%
5.5%
0.6%
1.4%
13.2%

Table 9: Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses as a Percentage of All Admissions,
by Race, 1996 and 2003
State
Alabama
California
Colorado
Florida
Georgia
Hawaii
Illinois
Iowa
Kentucky
Louisiana
Maryland
Michigan
Minnesota
Mississippi
Missouri
Nebraska
Nevada
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Oklahoma
Oregon
Pennsylvania
South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee
Texas
Utah
Virginia
Washington
West Virginia
Wisconsin
Total*

1996
20.1%
33.6%
15.3%
14.0%
17.3%
10.9%
15.3%
11.9%
19.3%
20.3%
11.3%
10.1%
13.5%
21.7%
17.0%
22.0%
15.3%
18.4%
29.5%
39.9%
10.4%
21.1%
25.0%
10.9%
26.1%
10.7%
22.4%
12.6%
18.4%
27.9%
15.9%
32.6%
9.0%
17.2%
25.0%

White
2003
31.2%
29.2%
23.3%
20.5%
29.5%
13.6%
25.3%
32.9%
30.8%
28.1%
22.8%
11.2%
35.3%
35.3%
31.1%
31.1%
16.2%
19.9%
32.2%
25.9%
14.4%
42.3%
44.5%
14.8%
25.2%
16.7%
30.6%
18.8%
25.7%
38.9%
14.9%
31.9%
10.1%
19.7%
25.4%

% Change
55.7%
-13.2%
52.4%
47.1%
70.5%
25.2%
65.5%
176.8%
59.8%
38.6%
102.1%
11.1%
162.1%
62.9%
82.7%
41.9%
6.0%
8.1%
9.3%
-35.2%
38.3%
100.0%
78.4%
36.1%
-3.2%
55.4%
36.9%
48.9%
39.5%
39.4%
-6.5%
-2.4%
11.9%
14.9%
1.9%

1996
31.9%
36.9%
32.1%
34.0%
31.8%
23.6%
47.1%
22.1%
44.6%
33.8%
26.1%
28.5%
22.6%
33.1%
20.2%
29.4%
23.6%
60.9%
50.0%
48.8%
33.2%
20.0%
31.8%
11.7%
33.8%
30.1%
25.0%
36.3%
37.6%
28.2%
38.2%
51.0%
42.5%
37.8%
36.8%

Black
2003
32.4%
32.8%
37.3%
38.8%
34.0%
31.4%
47.5%
21.4%
39.2%
43.9%
50.9%
22.5%
28.3%
36.3%
37.5%
18.9%
18.8%
21.1%
55.0%
44.6%
27.6%
16.2%
43.6%
13.4%
43.1%
31.8%
35.1%
30.5%
38.8%
38.0%
32.2%
44.5%
31.8%
44.9%
38.2%

% Change
1.6%
-11.1%
16.4%
14.3%
7.0%
32.7%
0.9%
-3.4%
-12.0%
29.8%
94.6%
-21.3%
25.5%
9.7%
85.9%
-35.6%
-20.2%
-65.4%
10.0%
-8.6%
-16.9%
-18.9%
37.1%
14.0%
27.5%
5.6%
40.4%
-16.0%
3.1%
34.8%
-15.7%
-12.9%
-25.3%
19.0%
3.7%

Source: National Corrections Reporting Program, 1996 and 2003.
*Total calculated on basis of 34 reporting states.

35

Human Rights Watch May 2008

The increase in the rate of white drug offender admissions in 31 states between 1996
and 2003 may partially reflect the impact of the increased manufacturing and use of
methamphetamine in the past decade.52 For example, in 1994, an estimated
3,825,000 people age 12 and older had used methamphetamine for nonmedical
purposes in their lifetime, and 760,000 had used it in the past year.53 By 2006, the
estimated number of people who had used methamphetamine for nonmedical
purposes in their lifetime had soared to 14,206,000, including 1,889,000 who had
used it in the past year.54 The available data also suggests whites use
methamphetamine far more than blacks. For example, in 2006, 6.9 percent of whites
surveyed reported use of methamphetamine during their lifetime, compared to 1.9
percent of blacks. Translating these rates into numbers yields an estimate of
11,540,000 whites who have used methamphetamine, and 546,000 blacks.55
According to a study on racial disparities in Minnesota’s imprisonment rates, the
disparity had indeed lessened recently due to the “imprisonment of
Methamphetamine offenders who are predominately white.”56

Race and Gender 1996-2003
Tables 10 and 11 show the rates of drug offender prison admissions for men and for
women, disaggregated by race, along with the percentage of change in those rates
between 1996 and 2003. The rate for white men increased in 31 states, including in
52 Methamphetamine is a synthetic psychostimulant that is cheap, highly addictive, and dangerous when used for
nonmedical purposes. Traditionally, it has been a drug used primarily by lower middle class white men, although this may be
changing as the number of women as well as minorities using the drug is apparently increasing. Since the early 1990s, use of
“meth” has spread from the west and southwest into the midwest and south. See, for example, SAMHSA, “State Estimates of
Past Year Methamphetamine Use,” The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) Report, Issue 37, 2006,
http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/2k6/stateMeth/stateMeth.htm (accessed April 16, 2008); and SAMHSA, “Methamphetamine
Use,” The NSDUH Report, January 26, 2007, http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/2k7/meth/meth.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008).
Persons in the west were more likely to have used methamphetamine in the past year than persons in the midwest, south, and
northeast. Use of the drug is lowest in the northeast. In certain parts of the country, methamphetamine now exceeds cocaine
and heroin as the drug of greatest law enforcement concern. For example, the National Association of Counties reported that
47.4 percent of surveyed county law enforcement officials said that methamphetamine was the biggest drug problem in their
counties, compared to 21 percent who reported that cocaine was their biggest problem. See National Association of Counties
(NACO), “The Meth Epidemic: The Changing Demographics of Methamphetamine,” August 2007,
http://www.naco.org/Template.cfm?Section=Library&template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=2479
7 (accessed April 16, 2008).
53 SAMHSA, “National Household Survey on Drug Abuse: Advance Report # 18 on the Findings of the 1995 National Household
Survey on Drug Abuse,” http://oas.samhsa.gov/nhsda/ar18t028.htm#A1 (lifetime use), and
http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/treatan/treana13.htm#E10E52 (past year use) (accessed April 16, 2008).
54 SAMHSA, “Results from the 2006 National Survey,” Tables 8.43A-8.45BB.
55 The respondents were age 12 years and older. Ibid., Detailed Tables, Table 8.43B. See also, for example, Council on Crime
and Justice, “Justice, Where Art Thou.”
56 Council on Crime and Justice, “Justice, Where Art Thou.”

Targeting Blacks

36

13 states where the increase was over 100 percent. Nevertheless, the total white
male rate declined over the period by 18.4 percent because of the marked decline in
such large states as California and New York. The rate for black men decreased in 17
states, including in California and New York, and in only two states (Tennessee and
North Dakota) did the growth exceed 100 percent. The net result was a decrease of
11.2 percent for the total black rate between 1996 and 2003. Because the rate for
black men declined less than the rate of white men, the disparity between the two
grew worse: as shown in Table 12, black men were sent to prison on drug charges at
10.8 times the rate of white men in 1996. In 2003, black men were sent to prison on
drug charges at 11.8 times the rate of white men.
The pattern was different for women. Between 1996 and 2003, the rate for white
women increased in 30 states. (Table 11). Although the increases in many states
were significant—in 19 states the rate increased by more than 100 percent—the
declines in California and New York kept the total increase to only 14 percent. The
rate at which black women were sent to prison for drug offenses decreased in 21
states during this period—and where the rate increased, the growth was relatively
small compared to the increases in white women’s rates. The result was a significant
total decrease of 28.9 percent among black women entering prison for drug offenses.
As a result of these changes, the ratio of rates at which black and white women were
sent to prison for drug offenses decreased, dropping from 7.7 to 4.8. (Table 12). That
is, the racial disparity in the women’s rates was reduced.
Because women are only a small percentage of prison drug admissions, the changes
in the male rates have a much greater impact on the overall rates.
The changes—or lack thereof—in the total as well as state-specific figures between
1996 and 2003 reflect many factors, the analysis of which is beyond the scope of
this report. We want to emphasize the huge impact that a large state, such as
California, can have on the total figures for the 34 states. We also want to caution
that to an unknown extent, the data may reflect changes in reporting methods by the
states with regard to race and ethnicities.

37

Human Rights Watch May 2008

Table 10: Male Rates of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses, by Race,
1996 and 2003
(Rates calculated per 100,000 male residents)
State
Alabama
California
Colorado
Florida
Georgia
Hawaii
Illinois
Iowa
Kentucky
Louisiana
Maryland
Michigan
Minnesota
Mississippi
Missouri
Nebraska
Nevada
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Oklahoma
Oregon
Pennsylvania
South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee
Texas
Utah
Virginia
Washington
West Virginia
Wisconsin
Total*

1996
34.0
214.6
19.1
25.1
23.4
14.7
19.6
23.6
44.8
34.1
18.6
12.1
11.3
38.8
24.1
35.2
30.6
20.2
28.4
38.6
22.8
27.7
54.1
16.4
17.8
25.6
47.7
5.7
20.5
37.9
24.6
57.1
9.1
12.7
51.6

White
2003
83.5
43.8
31.9
44.9
55.5
20.0
44.2
53.7
102.6
47.7
39.7
16.3
40.8
132.4
60.9
62.3
26.6
24.2
34.7
19.5
36.7
90.1
143.7
19.4
27.6
47.3
99.5
33.8
31.1
70.7
28.4
74.4
14.3
14.4
42.1

% Change
145.3%
-79.6%
67.1%
78.9%
137.1%
35.8%
125.3%
127.3%
129.0%
39.8%
113.3%
34.2%
262.6%
241.6%
152.4%
77.1%
-13.1%
20.0%
22.3%
-49.5%
60.7%
225.6%
165.6%
18.0%
54.7%
84.7%
108.7%
495.5%
51.7%
86.7%
15.6%
30.3%
57.0%
13.8%
-18.4%

Source: National Corrections Reporting Program, 1996 and 2003.
* Total calculated on basis of 34 reporting states.

Targeting Blacks

38

1996
341.1
1414.5
471.0
507.4
268.3
62.4
1116.2
672.3
886.3
442.7
541.5
274.2
466.6
322.1
173.0
480.5
307.1
363.5
829.0
432.9
606.8
68.4
433.8
205.9
277.9
452.5
304.9
53.4
387.5
344.2
516.2
836.4
245.1
654.9
558.0

Black
2003
363.6
515.1
456.5
628.2
345.3
122.0
1227.6
402.7
725.8
414.0
760.5
218.8
412.1
477.7
129.8
277.3
211.5
167.0
822.1
333.9
519.5
281.7
684.0
66.8
407.7
537.2
597.6
371.9
430.6
468.6
435.2
719.8
245.9
664.8
495.5

% Change
6.6%
-63.6%
-3.1%
23.8%
28.7%
95.6%
10.0%
-40.1%
-18.1%
-6.5%
40.4%
-20.2%
-11.7%
48.3%
-24.9%
-42.3%
-31.1%
-54.1%
-0.8%
-22.9%
-14.4%
311.5%
57.7%
-67.6%
46.7%
18.7%
96.0%
596.9%
11.1%
36.2%
-15.7%
-13.9%
0.3%
1.5%
-11.2%

Table 11: Female Rates of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses, by Race,
1996 and 2003
(Rates calculated per 100,000 female residents)
State
Alabama
California
Colorado
Florida
Georgia
Hawaii
Illinois
Iowa
Kentucky
Louisiana
Maryland
Michigan
Minnesota
Mississippi
Missouri
Nebraska
Nevada
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Oklahoma
Oregon
Pennsylvania
South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee
Texas
Utah
Virginia
Washington
West Virginia
Wisconsin
Total*

1996
6.2
29.5
4.0
4.8
4.9
6.3
2.8
3.2
11.6
5.4
3.6
2.0
1.5
4.9
3.6
5.4
7.2
3.4
3.5
7.3
5.8
3.5
15.3
3.8
1.5
3.9
9.4
0.8
6.0
4.6
5.1
10.9
1.4
1.4
8.0

White
2003
19.9
9.2
8.9
11.2
12.7
7.7
8.5
6.4
26.4
9.1
4.1
2.1
6.1
29.0
11.6
10.6
8.2
3.1
6.2
3.7
12.2
19.2
35.9
3.8
3.1
9.7
19.3
10.9
8.6
15.2
6.9
15.6
3.3
1.9
9.1

% Change
223.1%
-68.7%
124.6%
131.0%
157.6%
22.8%
203.5%
101.7%
128.5%
68.1%
14.4%
8.7%
309.2%
494.1%
223.7%
96.0%
14.2%
-9.7%
74.3%
-49.4%
108.5%
453.9%
135.1%
-0.2%
101.2%
150.7%
104.7%
1272.9%
45.1%
231.5%
36.0%
42.9%
132.7%
38.0%
14.0%

1996
36.7
212.0
99.6
41.7
23.5
38.1
120.5
73.4
83.5
37.8
34.0
18.8
52.6
20.5
10.0
105.1
35.2
78.0
53.5
55.7
63.0
93.0
90.0
10.7
15.5
36.5
87.9
4.6
73.9
0.0
65.2
167.4
30.9
64.6
61.9

Black
2003
26.1
62.5
117.2
50.7
21.8
25.3
109.4
28.8
88.5
27.4
50.1
11.0
38.5
41.1
14.3
60.7
19.4
0.0
59.5
24.1
50.7
91.5
119.5
24.7
13.0
30.8
387.6
28.9
51.4
117.7
49.5
133.5
32.4
51.5
44.0

% Change
-28.9%
-70.5%
17.6%
21.7%
-7.4%
-33.6%
-9.2%
-60.8%
6.1%
-27.5%
47.7%
-41.5%
-26.9%
100.7%
43.2%
-42.2%
-44.9%
-100.0%
11.2%
-56.8%
-19.5%
-1.6%
32.7%
130.7%
-16.2%
-15.7%
341.1%
529.0%
-30.5%
--24.0%
-20.2%
4.9%
-20.3%
-28.9%

Source: National Corrections Reporting Program, 1996 and 2003.
*Total calculated on basis of 34 reporting states.

39

Human Rights Watch May 2008

Table 12: Ratio of Black:White Rates of Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses by
Gender, 1996 and 2003
(Rates calculated per 100,000 adult residents)
State

Alabama
California
Colorado
Florida
Georgia
Hawaii
Illinois
Iowa
Kentucky
Louisiana
Maryland
Michigan
Minnesota
Mississippi
Missouri
Nebraska
Nevada
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Oklahoma
Oregon
Pennsylvania
South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee
Texas
Utah
Virginia
Washington
West Virginia
Wisconsin
Total*

Male
10.0
6.6
24.7
20.2
11.5
4.2
56.8
28.5
19.8
13.0
29.1
22.6
41.5
8.3
7.2
13.7
10.0
18.0
29.2
11.2
26.6
2.5
8.0
12.6
15.6
17.7
6.4
9.4
18.9
9.1
21.0
14.6
26.9
51.6
10.8

1996
Black:White
Female
6.0
7.2
25.1
8.6
4.8
6.1
42.9
23.3
7.2
7.0
9.5
9.6
35.0
4.2
2.8
19.5
4.9
22.8
15.1
7.6
10.8
26.8
5.9
2.8
10.1
9.4
9.3
5.8
12.4
0.0
12.8
15.3
22.0
47.8
7.7

Source: National Corrections Reporting Program, 1996 and 2003.
* Total calculated on basis of 34 reporting states.

Targeting Blacks

40

All
8.8
6.6
25.3
17.8
9.6
4.8
52.1
29.2
16.4
11.4
24.4
19.5
42.8
7.3
6.2
14.4
8.9
20.7
26.6
10.1
22.0
5.1
7.4
11.3
14.5
15.5
8.1
8.4
17.0
9.4
19.0
15.5
25.6
49.8
9.9

Male
4.4
11.8
14.3
14.0
6.2
6.1
27.7
7.5
7.1
8.7
19.2
13.4
10.1
3.6
2.1
4.4
8.0
6.9
23.7
17.1
14.2
3.1
4.8
3.5
14.8
11.3
6.0
11.0
13.9
6.6
15.3
9.7
17.2
46.1
11.8

2003
Black:White
Female
1.3
6.8
13.2
4.5
1.7
3.3
12.8
4.5
3.4
3.0
12.3
5.2
6.3
1.4
1.2
5.8
2.4
0.0
9.6
6.5
4.2
4.8
3.3
6.5
4.2
3.2
20.0
2.6
5.9
7.7
7.1
8.5
9.9
27.6
4.8

All
3.5
10.6
14.4
11.7
5.0
5.8
23.6
7.7
6.2
7.3
17.4
11.8
10.1
3.0
2.7
4.6
6.6
7.1
20.6
14.3
10.9
3.8
4.4
4.1
13.1
9.3
9.0
8.4
11.7
7.5
13.2
10.1
16.3
42.4
10.1

VI. Origins of Racial Disparities in Prison Admissions for
Drug Offenses
No doubt many Americans believe racial differences in imprisonment for drug
offenses reflect racial differences in involvement with illegal drug activities—that
blacks are sent to prison at higher rates on drug charges because they are more
involved in drug offenses than whites. The heightened media and political attention
to substance abuse and the drug trade in urban minority neighborhoods has
promoted the public perception that illegal drugs are more prevalent in those
neighborhoods than in more affluent white neighborhoods.57 The reality has long
been the reverse. In absolute numbers, there are far more whites committing drug
offenses than blacks. The disproportionate rates at which blacks are sent to prison
for drug offenses compared to whites largely originate in racially disproportionate
rates of arrest for drug offenses.58

Rates of Illegal Drug Activity
Use of illegal drugs, by definition, entails the drug offense of illegal possession. The
best approximation of comparative rates of drug possession comes from federallysponsored household surveys of drug use among Americans.59 Over the years, those
surveys have suggested that whites and blacks use illicit drugs at roughly the same
rates. For example, according to the most recent survey, an estimated 49 percent of
whites and 42.9 percent of blacks age 12 or older have used illicit drugs in their
lifetime; 14.5 percent of whites and 16 percent of blacks have used illicit drugs in the
past year; and 8.5 percent of whites and 9.8 percent of blacks have used an illicit
drug in the past month (those in this latter category are deemed to be current drug
users).60
57 Leonard Saxce, Ph.D., et al., “The Visibility of Illicit Drugs: Implications for Community-Based Drug Control Strategies,”
American Journal of Public Health, vol. 91 (2001), pp. 1987-1994,
http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1446920 (accessed April 16, 2008).
58 Disparities in drug arrests account for the preponderance, but not all, of the racial disproportionality among incarcerated
drug offenders. The type of drug offense (for example, possession or trafficking), the type of drug, and existence of a prior
record are all “race-neutral” factors that can affect sentencing. Human Rights Watch, Punishment and Prejudice, p. 19, fn. 72.
59 The surveys conducted by SAMHSA exclude high-drug using populations such as the homeless and people who are in jail
or prison, whether pending trial or serving sentences.
60 SAMHSA, “Results from the 2006 National Survey,” Appendix G: Selected Prevalence Tables, Table G.1.

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Human Rights Watch May 2008

Drug Users
Because the white population in the United States is slightly more than six times
larger than the black population,61 and the rate of drug use is roughly comparable
between the two, the number of white drug users is significantly higher than the
number who are black. For example, according to the 2006 surveys conducted by the
federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an
estimated 111,774,000 people in the United States age 12 or older have used illicit
drugs during their lifetime, of whom 82,587,000 are white and 12,477,000 are
black.62 There are also far more whites than blacks among people who have used
cocaine in any form in their lifetime, as well as among those who have used crack
cocaine. According to the 2006 SAMHSA estimates, there are 27,083,000 whites
who have used cocaine during their lifetime, compared to 2,618,000 blacks, and
5,553,000 whites who have used crack cocaine, compared to 1,536,000 blacks.63 If
black and white drug users are combined (and leaving aside other races), blacks
account for 13 percent of the total who—according to SAMSHA surveys—have ever
used an illicit drug, 8 percent of those who have ever used cocaine, and 21 percent
of those who have ever used crack cocaine.

61 There are 239,746,000 whites and 38,343,000 African Americans living in the United States. US Census Bureau, “Statistical
Abstract of the United States: 2008,” Table 6, p. 9, http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/ (accessed April 16, 2008).
62 SAMHSA, “Results from the 2006 National Survey,” Detailed Tables, Table 1.19A.
63 Ibid. Tables 1.33A (cocaine use) and 1.34A (crack use).

Targeting Blacks

42

Fig.8: Lifetime Drug Use by Race, Ages 12 and Older

100000
80000
in
thousands

60000
40000
20000

Blacks
Whites

0

Any Illicit Drug

Cocaine

Crack Cocaine

Estimates for drug use by persons age 12 and older from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
(SAMHSA), “Results from the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings.”

Drug Sellers
There is relatively little research on the demographics of drug sellers as such. Little is
known about the racial composition of drug kingpins and major traffickers, but as
discussed above, it is those at the bottom of the drug trade—for example, those
engaging in direct transactions with drug users—who constitute most of the drug
sellers who enter the criminal justice system and ultimately prison. Such data as is
available suggests, however, that low-level drug sellers have a similar racial profile
to drug users. In addition to the illegal activity of drug possession, drug users
typically engage in the activities of transferring, selling, and distributing drugs to
friends, acquaintances, or strangers.64 Such activities are illegal in all states even
when the transferring activities are not connected to compensation—for example,
when someone makes a collective purchase to divide among friends. If the

64 There is considerable research indicating that “many frequent drug users participate in some aspect of the drug
distribution system in order to support their drug habit and/or generate income.” Katherine Beckett, “Race and Drug law
Enforcement in Seattle,” May 3, 2004, p. 32, http://www.soc.washington.edu/users/kbeckett/Enforcement.pdf (accessed
April 16, 2008). In addition, drug users engage in transferring activities not connected to compensation—for example, passing
drugs between friends and making collective purchases that are divided up.

43

Human Rights Watch May 2008

preponderance of drug users are white, then a preponderance of those who transfer
or sell to another user are probably also white.
There is research suggesting people typically obtain their drugs from persons of their
own race.65 For example, drug users questioned in a study of patterns of drug
purchase and use in six major cities consistently reported that their main drug
sources were sellers of the same racial or ethnic background as themselves. As one
researcher addressing racial congruity in drug activities concluded, “[D]ealers with
direct contact with their customers … are likely to look like the customers, and in fact
be the customers, at other points in time.”66 Recent research in Seattle’s multi-racial
and multi-drug drug market indicates that the majority of those who use serious
drugs in Seattle are white, as are a majority of the sellers.67
The available data, limited as it is, thus suggests that if blacks constitute around 13
percent of the total black and white drug users, they will constitute roughly that
proportion of the total black and white drug offenders—those possessing,
purchasing, and transferring drugs to others. All other things being equal, they
should constitute a roughly similar proportion of people of both races who are
arrested, convicted, and sent to prison for drug law violations.68

65 Human Rights Watch, Punishment and Prejudice, p. 15. As sociologist Pamela E. Oliver points out, “most users of illegal
drugs meet the legal definition of delivering illegal drugs because of the way an illegal market works, where people make
buys and redistribute to their friends.” Pamela E. Oliver “Racial Disparity in the Drug War and Other Crimes: Arrests, Prison
Sentences, Probation and Probation Revocations as sources of Prison Admissions Disparities,” included as an Appendix in
Commission on Reducing Racial Disparities in the Wisconsin Justice System, “Final Report,” February 2008,
ftp://doaftp04.doa.state.wi.us/doadocs/web.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008). According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and
Delinquency Prevention, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth indicated that 3 percent of black youth reported selling
drugs compared with 17 percent of white youth. In a sampling of youth ages 12-17 in 1997 and 1998, the National Longitudinal
Survey of Youth found that the proportion of youth who reported selling or helping to sell drugs was the same among white,
black, and Hispanic youth. Findings reported in Howard Snyder and Melissa Sickmund, Department of Justice, Office of
Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, “Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2006 National Reports,” March 2006, p. 82,
http://ojjdp.ncjrs.org/ojstatbb/nr2006/downloads/NR2006.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008).
66 Dana E. Hunt, “Drugs and Consensual Crimes: Drug Dealing and Prostitution,” in Michael Tonry and James Q. Wilson, eds.,
Drugs and Crime (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 172.
67 Beckett et al., “Race, Drugs, and Policing;” and Beckett, “Race and Drug law Enforcement in Seattle.” The report was
prepared on behalf of the Defender Association’s Racial Disparity Project in Seattle, Washington.
68 See also Dorothy Lockwood, et al., “Crack Use, Crime by Crack Users, and Ethnicity,” in Darnel F. Hawkins, ed., Ethnicity,
Race and Crime (New York: State University of New York Press, 1995). A study conducted in the Miami, Florida metropolitan
area of 699 cocaine users (powder and crack) found over 96 percent of users in each racial/ethnic category was involved in
street-level drug dealing.

Targeting Blacks

44

Rates of Arrest
But all others things are not equal. Blacks constitute 35.1 percent of all drug arrests
nationwide.69 Even if we were to double the 13 percent estimate of the number of
blacks who may be drug offenders, the arrest figure is still disproportionately large.
Arrest data from some individual states reveal even more dramatic disparities. In
Georgia, for example, although blacks constituted approximately 14 percent of all
current drug users, they constituted 58 percent of persons arrested for drug
possession. Among cocaine users, blacks constituted 22 percent of current users but
79 percent of arrests for cocaine possession.70 In Illinois blacks accounted for 72
percent of all persons arrested for drug offenses.71 In Minnesota “there is a 10:1
disparity in drug-related arrests between African Americans and Whites” that exists
despite a study finding a similar level of drug use in Minnesota across racial and
ethnic lines.72 In Wisconsin the rate of black arrests for drug offenses of 2,324 per
100,000 was six times greater than the white rate of 367.73 In West Virginia non-white
males accounted for 26 percent of drug arrests by drug task forces but constituted
only 2.5 percent of the state population.74
There are numerous factors that help account for drug arrests that are racially
disproportionate to drug offending. Of considerable significance is the fact that
blacks are more likely to live in cities than whites: according to the US Census
Bureau, 51.5 percent of blacks in the US live in a metropolitan area, compared to 21.1
percent of whites.75 As a general matter, illicit drug use is higher in urban areas,76

69 Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), “Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2006,” Table 4.10.2006,
http://www.albany.edu/sourcebook/pdf/t4102006.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008).
70 Human Rights Watch, Race and Drug Law Enforcement in the State of Georgia, vol. 8, no. 4, July 1996,
http://www.hrw.org/reports/1996/Us2.htm.
71 Blacks accounted for 72 percent on average of arrests for drug offenses during three years in the late 1990s. The proportion
of blacks among those arrested for drug offenses increased from 46 percent in 1983 to 82 percent in 1992. Lurigio, “The
Illinois Perspective,” p. 7.
72 Council on Crime and Justice, “Justice, Where Art Thou,” p. 16.
73 Governor’s Commission on Reducing Racial Disparities in the Wisconsin Justice System, “Final Report,” Appendix, p. 48.
74 Dr. Stephen M. Haas, director, West Virginia Drug and Violent Crime Control Task Force, “Presentation to Senate Judiciary
Subcommittee C,” October 2, 2005,
http://www.google.com/search?q=cache:jAExeYczYrkJ:www.wvdcjs.com/statsanalysis/Presentations/DVCCTF%25200304%2520Report%2520Presentation.ppt+Drug+%26+Violent+Crime+Control+Task+Force+Report,+20032004&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=1&gl=us (accessed April 16, 2008).
75 US Census Bureau, “The Black Population in the United States: March 2002,” April 2003, Figure 2, p. 2,
http://www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/p20-541.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008).

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Human Rights Watch May 2008

there are more law enforcement resources per capita in urban areas,77 and there are
more drug arrests in urban than in non-urban areas.78 Drug law enforcement is not,
however, evenly distributed within urban areas. Instead, it has focused on lowincome, predominantly minority neighborhoods. This is not a “race neutral” factor.
Press attention and community concerns about crack cocaine and political
imperatives to be “tough on crime” made those neighborhoods the principal “fronts”
in the so-called war on drugs.79 Practical policing factors have played a role as well:
drug transactions in poor minority neighborhoods are more likely to be in public
spaces and between strangers, making it easier to undertake arrests, such as via
“buy and bust” operations, than it is in the bars, clubs, and private homes where
drug dealing by whites is more likely to occur.80
Drug arrest data reveal the greater number of black drug arrests in urban areas
across the country:

Table 13: US Arrests for Drug Abuse Violations, 200681
Region

Total number

Number/ % whites

Number/ % blacks

Nonmetropolitan(rural)
Suburban

85,720
491,999

68,985/ 80.5%
365,791/ 74.3%

14,744/ 17.2%
121,184/ 24.6%

Metropolitan

1,059,063

635,190/ 60%

410,240 /38.7%

76 Higher percentages of both blacks and whites use illicit drugs in metropolitan areas than in non-metropolitan areas.
SAMHSA, “Illicit Drug Use, by Race/Ethnicity, in Metropolitan and Non-Metropolitan Counties: 2004 and 2005,” The NSDUH
Report, June 21, 2007, http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/2k7/popDensity/popDensity.pdf (accessed March 3, 2008).
77 The expenditures per capita for police personnel are larger in central city areas than they are outside of them and also
increase with the size of cities. BJS, “Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2003,” Table 1.65.
78 For example, 76 percent of the arrests nationwide for drug abuse violations in 2002 occurred in cities. Data compiled from
BJS, “Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics,” Tables 4.10 and 4.12, http://www.albany.edu/sourcebook/ (accessed April 16,
2008).
79 There is an extensive body of literature on the origins and impact of “tough on crime” drug policies and the focus on crack
cocaine. See, for example, Tonry, Malign Neglect; Marc Mauer, The Sentencing Project, Race to Incarcerate (New York: The
New Press, 1999); Steven B. Duke and Albert C. Gross, America’s Longest War: Rethinking our Tragic Crusade against Drugs
(New York: Putnam Books, 1994); Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine, eds., Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social
Justice (Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1997); and Eva Bertram et al., Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial (Berkeley,
CA: Univ. of California Press, 1996).
80 Human Rights Watch, Punishment and Prejudice, pp. 21-23.
81 BJS, “Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, 2006,” Table 4.12.2006 (“Arrests in Cities”),
http://www.albany.edu/sourcebook/pdf/t4122006.pdf; Ibid., Table 4.16.2006 (“Arrests in Suburban Areas”),
http://www.albany.edu/sourcebook/pdf/t4142006.pdf; Ibid., Table 4.16.2006 (“Arrests in Nonmetropolitan Counties”),
http:www.albany.edu/sourcebook/pdf/t4162006.pdf (all accessed April 16, 2008).

Targeting Blacks

46

As seen in Table 13, the absolute number of black drug arrests was dramatically
larger in urban areas, as was the percentage of all drug arrestees who were black.
There were more than three times as many arrests of blacks in urban areas as in
suburban, while there were only 1.7 times as many arrests of whites. These figures
also reveal the relatively few arrests that take place in rural areas—only 5 percent of
the 1,636,782 drug arrests in 2006 occurred in rural areas. In the 75 largest counties
in the United States, blacks in 2002 accounted for 46 percent of drug offense arrests
and whites for 29 percent.82
Although it is difficult to quantify the extent, racial profiling no doubt plays some role
in higher black drug arrests.83 In Minneapolis, for example, blacks constituted 18
percent of the population but experienced 37 percent of police vehicle stops; whites
were 65 percent of the population, but experienced 43 percent of stops. In 1999, 77
percent of young males (ages 18-30) arrested for drug offenses in Minneapolis were
black, while 13.8 percent were white.84 Even when there are dramatic racial
disparities in police stops of vehicles or pedestrians, however, establishing the
existence of racial profiling and quantifying its impact is extremely difficult because
of the complexities inherent in determining the extent to which the disparities reflect
racial bias or legitimate factors. Nevertheless, in many studies researchers conclude
that race-neutral factors cannot wholly account for the disparities. Thus, for example,
researchers have concluded that legitimate race-neutral reasons do not explain all of
the stark racial disparities evident in New York City police “stop and frisk”
decisions.85

82 Data is for non-Hispanic blacks and non-Hispanic whites. Thomas H. Cohen and Brian A. Reaves, BJS, “Felony Defendants
in Large Urban Counties, 2002,” February 2006, Table 3, p. 4, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/fdluc02.pdf (accessed
April 16, 2008).
83 Many observers believe racial profiling remains a significant problem in the United States. See, for example, the American
Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “Race and Ethnicity in America: Turning a Blind Eye to Injustice (U.S. Violations of the Convention
on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination),” December 2007,
http://www.aclu.org/pdfs/humanrights/cerd_full_report.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008).
84 Tonry, Malign Neglect, p. 65.
85 Office of the Attorney General, New York State, “The New York City Police Department’s ‘Stop & Frisk’ Practices: A Report to
the People of the State of New York,” December 1, 1999,
http://www.oag.state.ny.us/press/reports/stop_frisk/stop_frisk.html (accessed April 16, 2008); and Greg Ridgeway, RAND
Corporation, “Analysis of Racial Disparities in the New York Police Department’s Stop, Question, and Frisk Practices,” 2007,
http://www.rand.org/pubs/technical_reports/2007/RAND_TR534.sum.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008).

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Human Rights Watch May 2008

From Arrest to Imprisonment
Racial disparities evident in drug arrests grow larger as cases wind their way through
the criminal justice system. Thus, blacks constitute 43 percent and whites 55 percent
of persons convicted of drug felonies in state courts,86 and then the disproportion
increases slightly among people sent to prison because of drug convictions (with
blacks accounting for 53.5 percent and whites 33.3 percent, as discussed above).
Prosecutorial discretion may play a role in the increased disparity between arrests
and prison admissions for drug offenses, as prosecutors have essentially unchecked
authority to choose what charges to bring and what pleas to accept.87 Blacks
arrested on drug charges may also have higher prison admission rates because they
are less likely to be able to afford private attorneys88 and must rely on public
defenders overwhelmed with high case loads, court-appointed attorneys who may
lack the capacity and/or inclination to vigorously pursue a defense, or private
attorneys who have little incentive to put anything beyond the least amount of time
into a case because they have contracted at a fixed price to take on public defense
cases.89 Although defendants represented by publicly financed counsel have the

86 Durose and Langan, BJS, “Felony Sentences in State Courts, 2002,” Table 5, p. 6.
87 Prosecutors have wide-ranging and essentially unchecked power to determine whether to prosecute a drug offense and, if
so, to determine what charges to bring or pleas to accept. Because of mandatory sentencing legislation, the decision
regarding what charges to bring effectively determines the sentence. In the largest counties, 57 percent of persons charged
with drug trafficking felonies plead guilty. Cohen and Reaves, “Felony Defendants in Large Urban Counties, 2002,” p. 30,
Table 23. The Justice Policy Institute points out that, unlike crimes of violence, the detection—and then prosecution and
sentencing—of drug offenders is a matter of considerable law enforcement as well as prosecutorial discretion. Phillip Beatty,
Amanda Petteruti, and Jason Ziedenberg, Justice Policy Institute, “The Vortex: The Concentrated Racial Impact of Drug
Imprisonment and the Characteristics of Punitive Counties,” December 2007, p. 16,
http://www.justicepolicy.org/images/upload/07-12_REP_Vortex_AC-DP.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008).
88 For example, 25.6 percent of black persons have income below the poverty level compared to 10.4 percent of whites. US
Census Bureau, “Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2008,” Table 36, p. 38, http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/
(accessed April 16, 2008).
89 Only 15.3 percent of felony drug defendants in the 75 largest counties in the US were represented by hired attorneys.
Caroline Wolf Harlow, BJS, “Defense Counsel in Criminal Cases,” November 2000, Table 7, p. 5,
http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/dccc.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008). Regarding the crisis of publicly financed counsel
and its impact on minorities, see also The Sentencing Project and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, “Racial
Disparity in Criminal Court Processing in the United States: Submitted to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of
Racial Discrimination,” December 2007,
http://www.sentencingproject.org/Admin%5CDocuments%5Cpublications%5CCERD%20December%202007.pdf (accessed
April 16, 2008); American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense, “Gideon’s Broken Promise:
America’s Continuing Quest for Equal Justice, A Report on the American Bar Association's Hearings
on the Right to Counsel in Criminal Proceedings,” December 2004,
http://www.abanet.org/legalservices/sclaid/defender/brokenpromise/fullreport.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008); and The
Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), “‘If You Cannot Afford A Lawyer …’: A Report on Georgia’s Failed Indigent Defense
System,” January 2003, http://www.schr.org/reports/docs/jan.%202003.%20report.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008).

Targeting Blacks

48

same conviction rates as those represented by private attorneys, those with publicly
financed counsel are more likely to be sentenced to incarceration.90
Another factor to consider as an explanation for higher prison admission rates is the
existence of a prior criminal record, which increases the likelihood of a prison
sentence upon a subsequent conviction.91 Most states have enhanced penalties for
second or subsequent drug offenses.92 Since blacks are more likely to be arrested
and hence more likely to have prior convictions, they are more likely to receive
prison sentences for subsequent offenses.

Case Study: New York
New York presents a clear example of racially disproportionate drug offender arrests
and prison admissions, as well as the contribution urban law enforcement makes to
this disparity.
Forty-two percent of New York State’s population is in New York City, but 56 percent
of law enforcement officers are there.93 In New York City there is one law enforcement
officer for every 224.1 persons. In upstate, less urbanized New York counties, the
rate of officers per person varies widely: it is one per 537.8 in Seneca, one per
1,650.6 in Franklin, and one per 2,334 in Oswego. In New York City there are 2.6 drug
arrests per officer, compared to 1.22 drug arrests per officer in the rest of the state.
Perhaps not surprisingly, 80.6 percent of all drug arrests in New York are in New York
City (Table 14).94

90 Caroline Wolf Harlow, “Defense Counsel in Criminal Cases.” Defendants represented by private counsel were also more
likely to be released pretrial.
91 Among defendants convicted in state court of felony drug offenses, 63 percent had prior convictions, primarily for nonviolent felony offenses and misdemeanors. Cohen and Reaves, “Felony Defendants in Large Urban Counties, 2002” Table 10, p.
12.
92 ImpactTeen Illicit Drug Team, Andrews University and the RAND Corporation, “Illicit Drug Policies,” p. 36.
93 US Census Bureau, “2006 American Community Survey Data Profile Highlights: New York City, New York,”
http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/ACSSAFFFacts?_event=&geo_id=16000US3651000&_geoContext=01000US%7C04000U
S36%7C16000US3651000&_street=&_county=New+York+City&_cityTown=New+York+City&_state=04000US36&_zip=&_lan
g=en&_sse=on&ActiveGeoDiv=&_useEV=&pctxt=fph&pgsl=040&_submenuId=factsheet_1&ds_name=ACS_2006_SAFF&_ci_
nbr=null&qr_name=null&reg=null%3Anull&_keyword=&_industry= (accessed April 16, 2008). Data on law enforcement
officers calculated from data provided by New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services to Human Rights Watch.
94 All data in this report on New York arrests are for 2002, and were provided to Human Rights Watch by the New York State
Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS). Between 2003 and 2007, New York City drug arrests varied from a high of 77
percent of all drug arrests in the state (2003, 2007) to a low of 73 percent (2006). 2002 is the last year for which DCJS has
reliable data on the racial and ethnic breakdown of state drug arrests.

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Human Rights Watch May 2008

Table 14: New York Drug Arrests by Region and Race/Ethnicity: 2002
Region

White

Black

Hispanic

Other

Total

New York City

15,112

57,280

35,876

1,237

109,505

Suburban NYC

4,523

4,278

549

59

9,409

Upstate

7,873

8,314

585

156

16,928

27,512

69,878

37,011

1,452

135,853

New York State

Blacks constitute 17.4 percent of the state’s population,95 and they accounted for
51.4 percent of drug arrests in the state. Blacks constitute 25.1 percent of New York
City’s population, 96 but represent 52.3 percent of all drug arrests in the city. Blacks
in New York City alone represent only 10.7 percent of the state population, yet
accounted for 42.1 percent of all drug arrests statewide.

Fig 9: Black Drug Arrests, New York City and New York State
60%
50%
40%

black proportion of total
population

30%

black proportion of total drug
arrests

20%
10%
0%

New York City

New York State

Source: Data from New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services for the year 2002, on file with Human Rights Watch.

The racial disproportions in drug arrests are followed by racial disproportions in
prison admissions. Table 15 shows that blacks from New York City—who, as noted
above, constitute 10.7 percent of the state population—accounted for 26 percent of
95 US Census Bureau, “State & County Quick Facts,” http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/36000.html (accessed April 16,
2008).
96 US Census Bureau, “2006 American Community Survey Data Profile Highlights: New York City, New York.”

Targeting Blacks

50

state prison admissions.97 Statewide, black drug offenders accounted for 56 percent
of the total number of drug offenders admitted to prison.

Table 15: Race and Ethnicity of New Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses in
New York, 200698
Region

White

Black

Hispanic

Other

Unknown

Total

New York City
Suburban New York

134
104

1,578
556

1,525
167

12
5

5
0

3,254
832

Upstate Urban

130

786

133

11

6

1,066

Upstate Other

296

472

126

12

2

908

Total

664

3,392

1,951

40

13

6,060

The role of cities in sending people to prison is also readily apparent in Table 15.
More than half (53.7 percent) of the people in the state entering prison in 2006
because of drug offenses were from New York City.99

Case Study: Illinois
Illinois has long had striking disproportions in the race of drug offenders sent to
prison. According to our analysis, blacks accounted for 74.9 percent of prison
admissions for drug offenses in 2003, and were sent to prison on drug charges at a
rate relative to the population that was 23.6 times greater than that of whites. In the
last few years, The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA) has
supported research to explore the causes of the marked racial disparities in the
sentencing and incarceration of Illinois drug offenders.100 The most recent report for
the ICJIA, published in 2005, found that Cook County, which includes Chicago,
97 Blacks represented about half the prison admissions from new court commitments for drug offenses throughout the period
2002-2006. State of New York Department of Correctional Services, “Statistical Overview: Year 2006 Court Commitments,”
May 2007, Table 9.1, p. 19, http://www.docs.state.ny.us/Research/Reports/Court_Commitments_2006.pdf (accessed April 16,
2008).
98 Data provided by the New York State Department of Correctional Services, March 7, 2008, on file with Human Rights Watch.
99 State of New York Department of Correctional Services, “Year 2006 Court Commitments,” Table 11.3, p. 23. Forty percent of
the commitments from New York City were for drug offenses.
100 The study was prompted by the results regarding Illinois reported in Human Rights Watch, Punishment and Prejudice.
Lurigio, “The Disproportionate Incarceration of African Americans for Drug Crimes: The Illinois Perspective,” p. 10: “All of our
analyses confirmed the HRW’s findings regarding the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans in Illinois for druglaw violations.”

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Human Rights Watch May 2008

constituted 43 percent of the population of Illinois but accounted for nearly twothirds of all state drug arrests.101 Ninety percent of drug arrests in Cook County
occurred in Chicago, and African Americans constituted 74 percent of the people
arrested for drug offenses in Chicago, and 85 percent in all of Cook County.102
The analysis concluded that “arrests and convictions of African-Americans for [drug]
violations in Chicago and in Cook County are driving the state’s racial disparities in
imprisonment.” It suggested several factors that help explain the racial disparities,
including: 1) residents in predominately African American neighborhoods call the
police, urging them to combat street-level gang and drug activities; 2) outdoor openair drug selling typical in minority urban areas is more vulnerable to police “buy and
bust” strategies to arrest sellers; and 3) sentencing enhancements that increase
sentences for people selling drugs within designated boundaries—for example,
within 1,000 feet of schools, public housing, and churches—typically apply to people
selling drugs in poor (and African American) urban areas.
But the study also found race to be an independent factor. The report for the ICJIA
cited earlier research showing that three factors predicted a sentence to prison for a
drug law violation, holding all other variables constant: type of offense (possession
or sales); history of imprisonment; and race. Persons of color, mostly African
Americans, were three times more likely than whites to be sentenced to prison for
any drug law violation.103

Case Study: Seattle
The authors of a comprehensive study of race and drug law enforcement in Seattle
concluded that blatant racial prejudice may be less important in producing stark
racial disparities in drug law enforcement than a more subtle form of “racism,” in
which “race shapes perceptions of who and what constitutes … [the] drug problem
and the organizational response to that problem.”104

101 Ibid., p.7.
102 Ibid.
103 The other variables included in the study were age, gender, educational level, and jurisdiction type.
104 Beckett et al., “Race, Drugs, and Policing;” and Beckett, “Race and Drug Law Enforcement in Seattle.” The report was
prepared on behalf of the Defender Association’s Racial Disparity Project in Seattle, Washington.

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Seventy percent of Seattle’s residents are white, only 8.4 percent are black, and the
rest are of other races. The majority of those who delivered (shared, sold, or
transferred) serious drugs105 in Seattle were white, but the large majority (64.2
percent) of drug arrestees were black. The researchers concluded the disparity was
the result of the police department’s allocation of resources, the department’s
emphasis on the outdoor drug market in the racially diverse downtown area, its lack
of attention to other outdoor markets that are predominantly white, its relative
disinterest in heroin sellers (who are predominantly white), and its emphasis on
crack cocaine. As a result of these department priorities, during the two-year period
in the study, 78.7 percent of the arrests for delivery of any of the five drugs studied
were for crack, even though crack was only involved in an estimated 33.3 percent of
Seattle drug transactions. In contrast, methamphetamine was involved in an
estimated 10.7 percent of outdoor transactions, yet only 1.1 percent of the drug
delivery arrests involved that drug. Powder cocaine was involved in an estimated
22.7 of outdoor transactions, but accounted for only 3.8 percent of arrests. Finally,
heroin was involved in 33 percent of transactions but in only 16.4 percent of arrests.
Whites constitute the majority of those who deliver methamphetamine, ecstasy,
powder cocaine, and heroin in Seattle; blacks are the majority of those who deliver
crack. Not surprisingly then, 79 percent of the crack arrestees were black,
contributing greatly to the overall racial skewing of Seattle drug arrests.
The researchers could not find a “racially neutral” explanation for these arrest
figures or the police priorities that caused them. The focus on crack offenders, for
example, did not appear to be a function of the frequency of crack transactions
compared to other drugs, of public safety or public health concerns, or of crime rates
or citizen complaints. The researchers concluded that the Seattle police
department’s drug law enforcement efforts:
[R]eflect implicit racial bias: the unconscious impact of race on official
perceptions of who and what constitutes Seattle’s drug problem ....
Indeed, the widespread racial typification of drug offenders as racialized
“others” has deep historical roots and was intensified by the diffusion
of potent cultural images of dangerous black crack offenders. These
105 The drugs studied were heroin, powder cocaine, crack cocaine, methamphetamine, and ecstasy.

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Human Rights Watch May 2008

images appear to have had a powerful impact on popular perceptions of
potential drug offenders, and, as a result, law enforcement practices in
Seattle.106

Case Study: A Focus on Counties
The Justice Policy Institute (JPI) recently examined the relationship between county
socio-demographic structures and their drug admission rates. According to JPI,
“since relatively constant patterns of individual-level drug use do not appear to be
driving the widely varying racial and cross-jurisdiction drug admission rates, it is
necessary to examine the socio-demographic characteristics of places that may be
associated with these disparities in prison admission rates.”107 Among its findings:
larger proportions of African Americans in a county’s population and high poverty
rates are both strongly correlated with higher county rates of sending people to
prison on drug charges. According to JPI, its research suggests that the greater the
proportion of disadvantaged people in a community, the more likely the community
is to have “punitive practices with regard to policing, prosecuting, and ultimately
imprisoning individuals who have engaged in drug behaviors,” a finding consistent
with a body of research that suggests “punishment is easier to dispense upon
individuals with whom one feels little commonality.”108

106 Beckett et al., “Race, Drugs, and Policing,” p. 130.
107 Phillip Beatty, Amanda Petteruti, and Jason Ziedenberg, Justice Policy Institute, “The Vortex,” p. 16. The study examined
198 large-population counties, representing 51.2 percent of the US population.
108 Ibid., p. 16.

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VII. Racial Injustice and Human Rights
In the post-civil rights era in the US, deep racial inequities remain in the criminal
justice system. We do not know whether or to what extent conscious racism—that is,
overt hostility to blacks—affects the actions of individual police, prosecutors, judges,
politicians, or other participants in drug law enforcement. What we can identify are
institutional structures and practices that appear to be color-blind but have the
effect of perpetuating advantages for whites and disadvantages for blacks. The “war
on drugs” is a paradigmatic example. Laws that appear racially neutral are actually
embedded in particular racial dynamics adverse to African Americans, and their
enforcement perpetuates those dynamics. As Prof. David Cole has observed,
inequalities in the criminal justice system “do not stem from explicit and intentional
race or class discrimination, but they are problems of inequality nonetheless.” The
problem is not explicit and intentional considerations of race, but racial “disparities
built into the very structure and doctrine of our criminal justice system….”109
Drug law enforcement has deepened the racial disadvantages confronted by lowincome African Americans even as it perpetuates the erroneous belief that most drug
offenders are black. Research shows that “at a time when civil rights and welfare
policies aimed at improving opportunities and living standards for black Americans,
drug and crime policies worsened them … [They] have operated in the same ways as
slavery and ‘Jim Crow’ legalized discrimination did in earlier periods to de-stabilize
black communities and disadvantage black Americans, especially black American
men.”110 The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights concluded in a study of civil
rights and the criminal justice system, “Our criminal laws, while facially neutral, are
enforced in a manner that is massively and pervasively biased. The injustices of the
criminal justice system threaten to render irrelevant fifty years of hard-fought civil
rights progress.”111
109 Cole, No Equal Justice, p.9.
110 Michael Tonry, “Minnesota Drug Policy and its Disastrous Effects on Racial and Ethnic Minorities,” in the appendices of
Council on Crime and Justice, “Justice, Where Art Thou,” p. 63, citing research by University of California at Berkeley
sociologist Loic Wacquant, http://www.crimeandjustice.org/researchReports/FINAL%20REPORT%2010.4.07.pdf (accessed
April 16, 2008).
111 Ronald H. Weich and Carlos T. Angulo, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, “Justice on Trial,” 2000,
http://www.civilrights.org/publications/reports/cj/justice.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008).

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Human Rights Watch May 2008

Although racist intent is not a prerequisite to the existence of racial inequities, US
state and federal constitutional law requires a finding of such intent before courts
will rule unconstitutionally discriminatory practices that disproportionately burden a
racial group.112 International human rights law, specifically the International
Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), a treaty
to which the United States is a party, is better suited to redressing racial inequities
rooted in structural racism.113
ICERD prohibits policies and practices that have the purpose or effect (emphasis
added) of restricting rights on the basis of race.114 It proscribes apparently raceneutral practices affecting fundamental rights—for example, the right to liberty—
regardless of racist intent, if those practices create unwarranted racial disparities.
The Convention requires remedial action whenever there is an unjustifiable disparate
impact upon a group distinguished by race, color, descent, or national or ethnic
origin.115 As the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recently
concluded after reviewing the most recent periodic reports of the United States
regarding its compliance with ICERD:
The Committee reiterates the concern expressed in paragraph 393 of its
previous concluding observations of 2001 (A/56/18, paras. 380-407)
that the definition of racial discrimination used in the federal and state
legislation and in court practice is not always in line with that contained
in article 1, paragraph 1, of the Convention, which requires States parties
to prohibit and eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms, including
practices and legislation that may not be discriminatory in purpose, but
in effect. In this regard, the Committee notes that indirect—or de facto—
112 The requirement of proof of intent has been a formidable barrier for victims of discrimination in the criminal justice system
seeking judicial relief. “Developments in the Law: Race and the Criminal Process,” 101 Harvard Law Review 1520 (1988).
113 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), adopted December 21, 1965, G.A.
Res. 2106 (XX), annex, 20 UN GAOR Supp. (No. 14) at 47, UN Doc A/6014 (1966), 660 U.N.T.S. 195, entered into force January 4,
1969, ratified by the United States on November 20, 1994.
114 Under ICERD, racial discrimination is defined as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour,
descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or
exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any
other field of public life.” ICERD, Part I, Article 1(1).
115 Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), General Recommendation 14(2) on Article 1, para. 1, of the
Convention, U.N. GAOR, 48th Sess., Supp. No. 18, at 176, U.N. Doc. A/48/18(1993). See also, Theodor Meron, "The Meaning
and Reach of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination," The American Journal of
International Law, vol. 79 (1985), pp. 287-88.

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discrimination occurs where an apparently neutral provision, criterion or
practice would put persons of a particular racial, ethnic or national
origin at a disadvantage compared with other persons, unless that
provision, criterion or practice is objectively justified by a legitimate aim
and the means of achieving that aim are appropriate and necessary.
(Article 1(1)).116
Under ICERD governments may not ignore the need to secure equal treatment of all
racial and ethnic groups, but rather must act affirmatively to prevent or end policies
with unjustified discriminatory impacts.117 ICERD notes in particular the importance of
eliminating racial discrimination in legal systems. Article 5(a) requires states party to
“prohibit and eliminate racial discrimination … notably in the enjoyment of … the
right to equal treatment before the tribunals and all other organs administering
justice.”118 The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has
recommended that “[s]tates should ensure that the courts do not apply harsher
punishments solely because of an accused person’s membership of a specific racial
or ethnic group.”119
Although the Committee has not specifically addressed racial disparities in the
enforcement of US drug laws, it has previously observed the particularly high rate of
incarceration of African Americans and Hispanics, and recommended that the United
States ensure that this disproportionately high incarceration rate was not a result of
the “economically, socially and educationally disadvantaged position of these
groups.”120 In 2008 the Committee reiterated “its concern with regard to the
116 CERD, “Consideration of Reports Submitted by State Parties under Article 9 of the Convention: Concluding Observations,
United States of America,” CERD/C/USA/CO/6, February 2008, para. 10,
http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cerd/docs/co/CERD-C-USA-CO-6.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008). The Committee also
considered written and oral testimony by numerous nongovernmental organizations. The submission by Human Rights Watch
is available online: Human Rights Watch, United States – Submission to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial
Discrimination, vol. 20, no. 2(G), February 2008, http://hrw.org/reports/2008/us0208/.
117 “States Parties condemn racial discrimination and undertake to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a
policy of eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms…. Each State Party undertakes to engage in no act or practice of
racial discrimination … and to ensure that all public authorities and public institutions, national and local, shall act in
conformity with this obligation…” ICERD, Part I, Article 2(1)(a).
118 Ibid., Article 5(a).
119 CERD, General Recommendation 31: Prevention of Racial Discrimination in the Administration and Functioning of the
Criminal Justice System, CERD/C/64/Misc.11/rev.3, para. 34.
120 CERD, “Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: United States of America,”
CERD/C/59/Misc.17/Rev 3, August 14, 2001, para. 16. It also instructed the United States to “take firm action to guarantee the
right of everyone … to equal treatment before the courts.”

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Human Rights Watch May 2008

persistent racial disparities in the criminal justice system [of the United States]
including the disproportionate number of persons belonging to racial, ethnic and
national minorities in the prison population.…”121 The Committee pointed out that
stark racial disparities in the administration and functioning of the criminal justice
system, particularly in the prison population, “may be regarded as factual indicators
of racial discrimination….” It recommended that the United States “take all
necessary steps to guarantee the right of everyone to equal treatment before
tribunals and all other organs administering justice, including further studies to
determine the nature and scope of the problem, and the implementation of national
strategies or plans of action aimed at the elimination of structural racial
discrimination.”
The United States suggested in its most recent submission to the Committee that
racial disparities in the criminal justice system generally reflect racial disparities in
offending, but it noted that there are “some unexplained disparities particularly
related to drug use and enforcement.”122 We disagree. We think the United States
could have explained racial disparities in drug law enforcement if it had sought to do
so. But explained or not, those disparities cannot be justified. There can be little
doubt that under ICERD, the United States must move forcefully to eliminate them.

121 CERD, “Concluding Observations: United States of America,” February 2008, para. 20.
122 Government of the United States, “Periodic Report of the United States of America to the U.N. Committee on the
Elimination of Racial Discrimination Concerning the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,” April
2007, http://www.ushrnetwork.org/files/ushrn/images/linkfiles/CERD%20Report%204-07.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008),
paras. 165 and 327. Along with many other NGOs, Human Rights Watch submitted information to the Committee for the record
for the Committee’s review of the United States’ compliance with its obligations under ICERD, during its 72nd session. Human
Rights Watch, United States - Submission to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

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VIII. Conclusion
The racial disparities in incarceration generated by drug control strategies raise
deeply troubling questions. Why are white drug users and sellers comparatively free
of arrest and incarceration for their illegal activity? Why has the United States
continued to address illicit drugs primarily with a punitive criminal justice approach,
including harsh prison sentences? Why has the country been willing to impose the
burden of incarceration for drug offenses primarily on those who by virtue of race
and poverty are already among the most marginalized in society and the most
politically powerless?123
We cannot answer those questions. But we do know that the racial disparities we
have documented in this report violate fundamental principles of justice and equal
protection of the law. They undermine faith among all races and ethnic groups in the
fairness and efficacy of the US criminal justice system.124 They are particularly
intolerable because incarceration has such grave implications for the offenders’ lives
and those of their families and communities.
It is difficult to overstate the harshness of a prison sentence and its enduring
consequences. Prisons are tense, overcrowded, dangerous, and barren places in
which it may be difficult to maintain one’s emotional equilibrium and self-respect,
much less turn a life around. Prison education, vocational, and substance abuse
programs are minimal. Incarceration leaves families without breadwinners,125

123 People in the criminal justice system are not a political constituency to which politicians pay heed. Moreover, criminal
justice involvement can lead to temporary—and in some places, permanent—political disenfranchisement. Human Rights
Watch and The Sentencing Project, Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States, 1998,
http://www.hrw.org/reports98/vote/. See also the website of The Sentencing Project for subsequent reports and news about
the campaign to restore the right to vote to former felons, http://www.sentencingproject.org/IssueAreaHome.aspx?IssueID=4
(accessed April 16, 2008).
124 Human Rights Watch, Punishment and Prejudice, p.5. Minnesota’s Council on Crime and Justice recently concluded that
the “disparity between how different races have been treated in the war on drugs undermines the integrity of the criminal
justice system, causing people to lose confidence that the system is even-handed and works equally for the benefit of all
citizens.” Council on Crime and Justice, “Justice, Where Art Thou,” p. 16.
125 Contrary to a common misperception, most drug offenders were employed and earning a wage prior to their incarceration.
King and Mauer, “Distorted Priorities,” p. 10.

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Human Rights Watch May 2008

children without parents.126 Even after release from prison, the consequences of
incarceration continue, reflected in wrecked families, troubled children, diminished
opportunities for jobs and economic advancement, problems finding housing, and
political disenfranchisement.127 Spending time in prison may increase the likelihood
of recidivism.128 High rates of incarceration in particular communities may deplete
the human and social capital of already disadvantaged neighborhoods, diminishing
opportunities for social and economic mobility and even contributing to ongoing
cycles of crime.129
The United States can and must devise ways to make its drug control policies less
destructive to black communities in general, and black males in particular. There is
no justification for levying the burdens of incarceration and its aftermath
disproportionately on black drug offenders. The statistics presented in this report
reflect the persistent failure of the United States to ensure that its efforts to reduce
illicit drug use and sales are conducted within a framework of respect for human
rights.

126 Christopher J. Mumola, BJS, “Incarcerated Parents and Their Children,” August 2000,
http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/iptc.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008); and Human Rights Watch, Collateral Casualties:
Children of Incarcerated Drug Offenders in New York, vol. 14, no. 3, June 2002, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2002/usany/.
127 Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project, Losing the Vote.
128 Cassia Spohn and David Holleran, “The Effect of Imprisonment on Recidivism Rates of Felony Offenders: A Focus on Drug
Offenders,” Criminology, vol. 40 (2002), pp. 329-357 (drug offenders sentenced to probation have lower recidivism rates and
reoffend more slowly than those sentenced to prison).
129 Dina R. Rose and Todd R. Clear, “Incarceration, Social Capital and Crime: Implications for Social Disorganization Theory,”
Criminology, vol. 36 (1998), pp. 441-479.

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IX. Methodology
Prison Admissions for Drug Offenses
State-by-state data on prison admissions from the National Corrections Reporting
Program (NCRP) for 2003130 (the latest year with available data) were used to
compute all the statistics in this report related to admissions to prison. In 2003, 35
states participated in the reporting of admission data to NCRP. The data were
cleaned as follows before any analysis:
•

The admission database had a total of 559,526 cases. Cases were attributed
to states first using the state of jurisdiction. Where the state of jurisdiction
was unknown (136,573 cases; 24.4 percent) the county where sentence was
imposed was used to assign the case to a state. A total of 1,546 cases (0.28
percent) were excluded when the case could not be attributed to a
participating state. These include cases from: “Shared Jurisdiction” (2),
“Federal Prison System” (195), “State Other than Reporting State” (62),
“Unknown State” (777), and cases from non-participating states: Arizona (7),
Arkansas (3), Connecticut (134), Delaware (1), Idaho (5), Kansas (5),
Massachusetts (1), Montana (3), New Mexico (7), Ohio (1), and Vermont (343).
The remaining 557,980 cases were from participating states.

•

Only new court commitments were considered for analysis, representing
357,114 cases (64.0 percent), including: “New Court Commitment,” “Parole
Revocation with a New Sentence,” “Mandatory Parole Release with a New
Sentence,” “Suspended Sentence Imposed,” and “Probation Revocation with
a New Sentence.” A total of 200,866 cases (36.0 percent) from the
participating states that were not new court commitments (for example,
“Parole Revocation with No New Sentence”) were excluded.

•

Alaska did not report any new commitments in the data it submitted to the
NCRP. We have therefore not included Alaska in this report and in the data

130 Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), “National Corrections Reporting Program Series,” 2003,
http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/cocoon/ICPSR/SERIES/00038.xml (accessed December 1, 2007).

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Human Rights Watch May 2008

analyses that we have done. We refer in the report to the 34 NCRP reporting
states for simplicity’s sake, even though there were technically 35.
•

Out of the 357,114 new commitments, 3,397 concerned children. These cases
were excluded. All the figures used in this report are provided for adults only.
Finally, 15 cases were excluded because they had incomplete data on
demographics (gender or age). The final number of new prison commitments
considered for analysis therefore was 353,702 cases.

•

From this admissions database, drug offenders were selected for analysis.
Drug offenders identified for this report were defined as new prison
admissions in the NCRP database for which the most serious offense (that is,
the offense that carried the longest sentence—variable V26 in the database)
was a drug-related offense. These included offense codes 340 to 450.131 Only
those cases were selected for analysis. Offenders who were admitted to
prison with more serious offenses—such as murder—in addition to drug
offenses are not included among drug offenders in our analyses. The final
database for drug offender admissions included 111,247 cases.

Race and Prison Admissions
The NCRP database treats race and ethnicity separately, with one variable for race
and one variable for ethnicity. We only used race in our analyses of prison
admissions because of the large amount of missing data on ethnicity (23.8 percent
cases with missing ethnicity). We recoded race into three categories: whites, blacks,
and “other.” The “other” category includes cases for which the race was Indian
American, Asian, Native Hawaiian, other, unknown, or blank cases. Each racial
category can include Hispanics and non-Hispanics.

Rates of Admission
We used US Census Bureau projected population data for 2003132 to compute rates
of admissions in this report. Rates were calculated per 100,000 adult (age 18 years
or older) residents of the designated race and gender groups in each state for which
131

BJS, “Offense Code for the National Correction Program,” ICPSR 20741 Codebook.

132 US Census Bureau, “Population Estimates,” March 2008, http://www.census.gov/popest/estimates.php (accessed April
16, 2008).

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we had drug admissions data. Races were recoded into three categories: white,
black, and other, each of which may include Hispanics and non-Hispanics.

Total Figures
In the charts and figures in this report, unless otherwise specified, “total”
frequencies and rates of admission were calculated on the basis of the total number
of new drug admissions and the total populations for the 34 reporting states
combined. The “totals” do not reflect averages.

Limitations
External Validity
The National Corrections Reporting Program does not provide data for all 50 states.
In 2003, 35 states participated in the program (the number of participating states
varies each year). The state of Alaska did not report any new prison admissions and
we therefore excluded it from our analysis. The analysis presented in this report
therefore is only valid for the 34 reporting states with new prison admissions. How
the non-participating states differ in terms of drug admissions and racial disparity is
unknown.

Reporting of the Cases
The reliability of the data contained in the NCRP database cannot be assessed. The
NCRP database is based on a structured questionnaire completed annually on the
basis of official prison records of prisoner population movement. After the
questionnaires are processed by the Census Bureau, state tallies are sent to state
officials for verification and comment. Limitations and information on data
processing are provided in the codebook associated with the data.133

Duplication
The NCRP database considers every prison admission as a new case. It is therefore
possible that the same individual is represented more than once in the 2003
database if he or she was admitted more than once over the course of that year.
133 BJS, ICPSR 20741 Codebook.

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Human Rights Watch May 2008

However, since offenders are rarely sent to prison unless they have a sentence of
one year or more, the possible number of duplicates among new prison admissions
is unlikely to affect the analyses presented in this report.

Missing Data on Race
Among the new drug offender admissions in the NCRP data base, 12.3 percent listed
race as unknown, “other” or left the variable blank. There is no way of knowing
whether or to what extent the results of our analyses would change had there been
more complete reporting on race in the NCRP database.

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64

H UMA N R I G H TS WATCH
350 Fifth Avenue, 34 th Floor
New York, NY 10118-3299

H U M A N

www.hrw.org

W A T C H

Targeting Blacks
Drug Law Enforcement and Race in the United States
US drug law enforcement continues to disproportionately impact black Americans, fueling their extraordinarily
high rates of incarceration. Although whites constitute the large majority of drug offenders, it is blacks who, in the
so-called war on drugs, bear the brunt of its punitive policies.
Using 2003 data (the most recent available) from 34 states on those newly entering prison because of drug
offense convictions, Targeting Blacks: Drug Law Enforcement and Race in the United States documents state by
state the dramatically higher proportion and rate at which blacks are sent to prison for drug offenses, compared
to whites. Among the report’s key findings:
•

Blacks constituted 53.5 percent of all persons entering state prisons with a new drug offense conviction.

•

A black man was 11.8 times more likely than a white man to enter prison with a new drug conviction, and
a black woman was 4.8 times more likely than a white woman.

•

Among all African Americans entering prison, 38.2 percent were convicted of drug offenses, compared to
25.4 percent among whites.

Human Rights Watch calls on public officials to identify and eliminate all policies that have the effect of creating
racial disparities in the arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of drug offenders. Authorities should implement
anti-drug strategies that will respond to concerns about substance abuse without unfairly condemning black men
and women to prison.
Targeting Blacks is a follow up to Human Rights Watch’s 2000 report, Punishment and Prejudice: Racial
Disparities in the War on Drugs, based on data from 1996.

Inmates wait in holding pens at the
California Institution for Men in Chino,
California, on July 12, 2007. The offenses
they were convicted of are not known.
© 2007 Monica Almeida/
The New York Times/Redux Pictures

R I G H T S

 

 

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