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Sentencing Project Report on Changing Racial Dynamics in War on Drugs 2009

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THE

SENTENCING

~~~~~~:o~

The Changing Racial Dynamics
of the War on Drugs
Marc Mauer
April 2009

For further information:
The Sentencing Project
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Suite 1000
Washington, DC 20004
(202) 628-0871

This report was written by Marc Mauer, Executive Director, of The
Sentencing Project. The author wishes to thank Katherine Beckett,
Jonathan Caulkins, and William Sabol for helpful comments on a
draft paper.
The Sentencing Project is a national non-profit organization engaged
in research and advocacy on criminal justice policy issues.
The Sentencing Project is supported by the generosity of individual
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www.sentencingproject.org

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Copyright © 2009 by The Sentencing Project. Reproduction of this
document in full or part in print or electronic format only by permission of
The Sentencing Project.

THE CHANGING RACIAL DYNAMICS OF THE WAR ON DRUGS

OVERVIEW
For more than a quarter century the “war on drugs” has exerted a profound impact
on the structure and scale of the criminal justice system. The inception of the “war”
in the 1980s has been a major contributing factor to the historic rise in the prison
population during this period. From a figure of about 40,000 people incarcerated in
prison or jail for a drug offense in 1980, there has since been an 1100% increase to a
total of 500,000 today. To place some perspective on that change, the number of
people incarcerated for a drug offense is now greater than the number incarcerated
for all offenses in 1980.
The increase in incarceration for drug offenses has been fueled by sharply escalated
law enforcement targeting of drug law violations, often accompanied by enhanced
penalties for such offenses. Many of the mandatory sentencing provisions adopted in
both state and federal law have been focused on drug offenses. At the federal level,
the most notorious of these are the penalties for crack cocaine violations, whereby
crack offenses are punished far more severely than powder cocaine offenses, even
though the two substances are pharmacologically identical. Despite changes in
federal sentencing guidelines, the mandatory provisions still in place require that
anyone convicted of possessing as little as five grams of crack cocaine (the weight of
two sugar packets) receive a five-year prison term for a first-time offense.
At the state level, the most longstanding of the current generation of harsh drug laws
are New York’s “Rockefeller” drug laws. Adopted in 1973, these laws call for a 15year prison term for possession of four ounces of narcotics or sale of two ounces.
Modest reforms to the law were enacted in 2004, and more substantial reform is
likely to be signed into law this year.
The dramatic escalation of incarceration for drug offenses has been accompanied by
profound racial/ethnic disparities. Overall, two-thirds of persons incarcerated for a
drug offense in state prison are African American or Latino. These figures are far out

2

THE CHANGING RACIAL DYNAMICS OF THE WAR ON DRUGS

of proportion to the degree that these groups use or sell drugs. A wealth of research
demonstrates that much of this disparity is fueled by disparate law enforcement
practices. 1 In effect, police agencies have frequently targeted drug law violations in
low-income communities of color for enforcement operations, while substance abuse
in communities with substantial resources is more likely to be addressed as a family
or public health problem.
In recent years, there is emerging evidence of potentially significant change in the
approach and effects of national drug policy. First, there is increasing public and
policymaker recognition of the value of drug treatment as a more appropriate
response to substance abuse than incarceration in many instances. In this regard, we
can trace the rapid expansion of drug courts. From the inception of the first
treatment-oriented courts in 1989, these programs have now grown to more than
1,600 nationally. There is ongoing debate regarding the extent to which these
approaches divert defendants from incarceration, but in any case they represent
broad support for less punitive policies in regard to substance abuse.
Within the prison system we have seen the beginnings of change as well. In state
prisons, from 1999-2005 (most recent data) there was virtually no change in the
number of people incarcerated for a drug offense, rising less than 1% from 251,200
to 253,5000 during this time. 2 Without exaggerating the impact of these figures –
still record highs – there is nonetheless a stabilizing of these numbers in state prisons,
a far different trend than was seen in the 1980s and early 1990s.

1

See, for example, Michael Tonry, Malign Neglect: Race, Crime, and Punishment in America, Oxford

University Press, New York, 1995; Katherine Beckett, Kris Nyrop, and Lori Pfingst, “Race, Drugs,
and Policing: Understanding Disparities in Drug Delivery Arrests,” Criminology, 44, 1: 105-138.
2

All data on state prison populations taken from annual prison reports of the Bureau of Justice

Statistics.

3

THE CHANGING RACIAL DYNAMICS OF THE WAR ON DRUGS

This stability in the number of drug offense incarcerations is intriguing, but hides an
even more dramatic change – a significant shift in the racial composition of people
incarcerated for a drug offense. Our analysis below documents these striking trends:
•

The number of African Americans in state prisons for a drug offense declined
by 21.6% from 1999-2005, a reduction of more than 31,000 persons.

•

The number of whites incarcerated for a drug offense rose significantly
during this period, an increase of 42.6%, representing an additional 21,000
persons in prison.

This report examines these shifting dynamics in the context of the criminal justice
system to explore possible explanations for these changes. We then assess the
implications of these changes for both substance abuse policy and considerations of
racial justice.

4

THE CHANGING RACIAL DYNAMICS OF THE WAR ON DRUGS

CHANGING RACIAL DYNAMICS OF INCARCERATION
FOR DRUG OFFENSES
Since the inception of the war on drugs, African American communities have been
subject to high levels of arrest and incarceration for drug offenses. As of 2005,
African Americans represented 12% of the total population of drug users, but 34%
of those arrested for drug offenses, and 45% of those in state prison for a drug
offense. Many of these disparate rates of supervision in the criminal justice system
still persist, but within state prisons there is clearly a change taking place in recent
years. We can see this in Table 1 below, examining the number of persons
incarcerated for a drug offense by race and ethnicity for 1999-2005.
TABLE 1: DRUG OFFENDERS IN STATE PRISON BY RACE/ETHNICITY, 1999-2005

1999

2000

2001

2002

2003

2004

2005

Change,
99-05

All Drug
Offenders

251,200

251,100

246,100

265,000

250,900

249,400

253,300

0.8%

White #
White %

50,700
20.2%

58,200
23.2%

57,300
23.3%

64,500
24.3%

64,800
25.9%

65,900
26.4%

72,300
28.5%

42.6%

Black #
Black %

144,700
57.6%

145,300
57.9%

139,700
56.8%

126,000
47.5%

133,100
53%

112,500
45.1%

113,500
44.8%

-21.6%

Hispanic #
Hispanic %

52,100
20.7%

43,300
17.2%

47,000
19.1%

61,700
23.3%

50,100
20%

51,800
20.8%

51,100
20.2%

-1.9%

5

THE CHANGING RACIAL DYNAMICS OF THE WAR ON DRUGS

Several trends are striking in this period:
•

First, the number of people serving prison time for a drug offense is virtually
unchanged, increasing by less than 1% over the six-year time frame. While
this may not appear dramatic, it needs to be considered in the context of the
1200% growth in the state prison population for drug offenses from 1980 to
1999.

•

Second, while the overall number of persons serving time for a drug offense
has not changed, the racial composition has shifted significantly. The
number of African Americans declined by more than 31,000 during this
period, a 21.6% drop. In 1999, African Americans had constituted 57.6% of
those serving time in prison for a drug offense; by 2005 this figure had
declined to 44.8%. 3

•

Conversely, the number of whites serving time for a drug offense rose
substantially during this period, a 42.6% increase from 50,700 in 1999 to
72,300 in 2005. As a result, the white share of drug offense incarceration
rose from 20.2% to 28.5%. The Hispanic figures were virtually unchanged
during this time, with a modest 1.9% drop overall. (Figures do not add to
100 percent due to other race categories.)

3

Data analysis procedures adopted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2004 affected the

categorization of persons identifying with two or more races (2.9% of the total), and had the result of
a modest reduction in the number of persons identified as non-Hispanic white and black.

6

THE CHANGING RACIAL DYNAMICS OF THE WAR ON DRUGS

ASSESSING THE DECLINING BLACK PROPORTION OF
DRUG OFFENSES
In looking at trends in state incarceration, clearly we are seeing the end result of 50
state law enforcement and sentencing systems that cumulatively produce these
figures. Therefore, one needs to be cautious about interpreting trends. But in order
to understand these dynamics we can look at a series of indicators to try to identify
causal factors, both within and outside the criminal justice system.
Tradeoff with Federal Prison Population
We begin by looking at the composition of the federal prison population. A simple
explanation for the declining black population in state prisons might be that federal
prosecutors had enhanced drug prosecutions disproportionately among African
Americans, and therefore merely shifted the location of imprisonment. Table 2
below displays data on the racial/ethnic dynamics of incarceration in federal prisons
for drug offenses from 1999-2005. 4
TABLE 2: DRUG OFFENDERS IN FEDERAL PRISON BY RACE/ETHNICITY, 1999-2005

1999

2000

2001

2002

2003

2004

2005

Change,
99-05

All Drug
Offenders

71,757

76,041

80,888

84,674

89,325

91,646

95,211

32.7%

White #
White %

16,492
23%

17,547
23.1%

18,303
22.6%

19,346
22.9%

20,539
23%

21,176
23.1%

22,251
23.4%

34.9%

Black #
Black %

31,097
43.3%

33,068
43.5%

35,537
43.9%

36,718
43.4%

38,341
42.9%

39,353
42.9%

40,812
42.9%

31.2%

Hispanic #
Hispanic %

23,095
32.2%

24,337
32%

25,939
32.1%

27,388
32.4%

29,010
32.5%

29,493
32.2%

30,279
31.8%

31.1%

4

Data on federal prison population provided by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

7

THE CHANGING RACIAL DYNAMICS OF THE WAR ON DRUGS

As we can see, there was a significant increase – just under 10,000 – in the number of
African Americans incarcerated for a drug offenses during this time. But this 31.2%
increase was virtually identical to the increase for Latinos and slightly less than that
for whites. This increase, therefore, represents an overall expansion of federal
resources for drug prosecutions, but not one with enhanced differential effects on
African Americans. The only change of significance was a modest rise in 2001 which
included the absorption of incarcerated persons in the Washington, D.C. prison
system into the federal system, but the overall increased number of drug offenders of
all races from Washington, D.C. was just an additional 455 persons that year. So,
there is no obvious change in the relative proportion of state and federal
incarcerations that would explain the decline in the number of African Americans in
state prisons for a drug offense.
Rates of Drug Use
A second area of inquiry relates to drug use. If, for example, African American drug
use declined during this time period, then that might ultimately result in reduced
incarceration for drug offenses. But as seen below in Table 3, there is little change in
this regard. Data on regular drug users, compiled by household surveys conducted
by the Department of Health and Human Services, 5 has consistently shown over
many years that the number of drug users generally reflects the relative racial/ethnic
proportion of the national population. That is, whites, blacks, and Latinos use drugs
at relatively similar rates. African Americans constitute about 12% of the national
population, and from 1999-2005 comprised between 11.5-14.0% of all regular drug
users. Similar stability can be seen in the white and Hispanic proportions of drug
users during this time. So in this case as well, there are no changes that are

5

Data on rates of drug use from the national household surveys of the Substance Abuse and Mental
Health Services Administration of the Department of Health and Human Services. “Regular” drug
users are the most frequent consumers of drugs, as measured by “used drugs in the past month” in the
surveys. Even this measure, though, is somewhat imprecise, since it conflates people who use drugs on
a daily basis with those who use drugs “regularly” but not daily. For these purposes, though, the
overall stability in rates of use is the most significant aspect of the analysis.

8

THE CHANGING RACIAL DYNAMICS OF THE WAR ON DRUGS

significant enough to explain the declining African American figures in state
imprisonment.
TABLE 3: RACIAL/ETHNIC PROPORTION OF REGULAR DRUG USERS, 1999-2005
Year

White %

Black %

Hispanic %

1999

72.1

13.4

10.2

2000

74.8

11.5

9.1

2001

74.2

11.9

9.9

2002

71.8

13.3

10.7

2003

71.0

12.3

12.2

2004

70.7

12.7

11.7

2005

69.2

14.0

12.4

It is important to note, though, that data on drug use are limited for two key reasons.
First, it is much more likely that drug sellers, rather than users, will receive prison
sentences. But measuring drug selling is challenging, as there are no reliable surveys
that provide data. Persons who use drugs, though, generally report that they
purchased their drugs from someone of their own race. 6 Therefore, if drug use is
roughly proportional to the overall population, drug selling rates are likely to be in
that range as well.
A second limitation of using data on drug use is that it has been widely documented
that drug arrests are far from responsive to actual rates of drug use. As a result of a
variety of law enforcement policies and practices, people of color are far more likely
to be subject to drug arrests than are whites who use or sell drugs. Nonetheless, the
available data at least convey that there are no changes in rates of drug use overall
that contribute to the prison data trends.
6

K. Jack Riley, Crack, Powder Cocaine, and Heroin: Drug Purchase and Use Patterns in Six U.S. Cities,

National Institute of Justice, December 1997.

9

THE CHANGING RACIAL DYNAMICS OF THE WAR ON DRUGS

Trends in Arrest Rates
Following the trajectory of the criminal justice system, we can then examine trends in
drug arrest rates that might offer an explanation for the change in black
incarceration. Overall, we see in Table 4 that in the 1999-2005 period drug arrests
continued to rise for all but one year, an overall increase of 19% during this time. 7
This trend continues a pattern that has been virtually unabated since the mid-1980s.
TABLE 4: DRUG ARRESTS, 1999-2005
Year

Number of Drug Arrests

1999

1,557,100

2000

1,579,566

2001

1,586,902

2002

1,538,813

2003

1,678,192

2004

1,746,570

2005

1,846,351

In looking at the potential impact of drug arrests on incarceration, though, it is
important to disaggregate the arrest totals. In recent years, there has been a sharp
increase in the number of arrests for marijuana offenses, which now total more than
40% of all drug arrests. 8 The vast majority of marijuana arrests, more than 80%,
have been for possession offenses. Since an arrest for marijuana possession rarely
results in a prison term, it is more useful for these purposes to analyze arrest patterns
without these offenses, which lowers the arrest figures by nearly 40%.

7

Data on arrests taken from the annual Uniform Crime Reports of the FBI.

8

Ryan S. King and Marc Mauer, The War on Marijuana: The Transformation of the War on Drugs in

the 1990s, The Sentencing Project, May 2005.

10

THE CHANGING RACIAL DYNAMICS OF THE WAR ON DRUGS

If we then examine drug arrests by race, excluding those for marijuana possession, we
see a significant shift. 9 As seen in Table 5 the proportion of adult African Americans
arrested for one of these drug offenses declined from 40.1% in 1999 to 33.2% in
2005, for an overall decline of 17.2% during this period. (FBI arrest data provide
breakdowns by race, but not ethnicity. Therefore there is no means of tracking
changes for Latino arrestees, most of whom are incorporated in the white category.)
The 17.2% decline in the black proportion of arrests approaches the scale of the
21.6% decline in the number of African Americans in state prison for a drug offense
during this period.
TABLE 5: BLACK PROPORTION OF DRUG ARRESTS, EXCLUDING MARIJUANA POSSESSION,
1999-2005

9

Year

Black %

1999

40.1

2000

39.3

2001

39.1

2002

35.8

2003

33.8

2004

33.1

2005

33.2

Data calculated from drug arrest figures by race provided by the Uniform Crime Reports division of

the FBI.

11

THE CHANGING RACIAL DYNAMICS OF THE WAR ON DRUGS

Trends in Drug Offense Convictions
Following the changes in patterns of drug arrests we then examine data on felony
drug convictions by race. Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics are analyzed
every two years, 10 as seen in Table 6. In this area, from 1998-2004 we can see a
significant decline in the black proportion of drug convictions, 13% overall (from
53% to 46%) and 17% (from 57% to 47%) for drug trafficking offenses, which are
the drug charges most likely to result in a prison term. The decline in convictions for
trafficking offenses is almost identical to the proportional decline in drug arrests for
African Americans. All other things being equal, a declining proportion of black
drug convictions should lead to similar reductions in black incarceration for drug
offenses. The decline in the conviction rate is not quite as large as the overall drop
in incarceration for African Americans, but clearly represents a substantial portion of
that change. (As with data on arrests, drug conviction data do not record ethnicity,
so there is no means of tracking convictions for Latinos.)
TABLE 6: PROPORTION OF DRUG CONVICTIONS BY RACE, 1998-2004

10

WHITE

1998

2000

2002

2004

All Drug Convictions

46%

46%

55%

52%

Possession Convictions

55%

49%

61%

54%

Trafficking Convictions

42%

44%

51%

51%

BLACK

1998

2000

2002

2004

All Drug Convictions

53%

53%

43%

46%

Possession Convictions

44%

50%

36%

44%

Trafficking Convictions

57%

55%

47%

47%

See Felony Sentences in State Courts reports of the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

12

THE CHANGING RACIAL DYNAMICS OF THE WAR ON DRUGS

FACTORS CONTRIBUTING TO THE DECLINE IN
AFRICAN AMERICAN DRUG OFFENSE
INCARCERATION
The trends we are observing are relatively recent and therefore will need to be
assessed over time in order to draw firm conclusions regarding the driving forces
contributing to the prison declines we have documented. But there are several
possible systemic changes that may provide parts of the explanation.
Changes in Drug Use Patterns
While the overall racial distribution of drug users has not changed substantially
during this period, there have been some changes in the degree to which various
drugs are used. In particular, the use of crack cocaine has declined substantially since
the peak years of the late 1980s. An analysis published by the National Institute of
Justice documented that crack use had become much less popular, particularly
among young people, by the 1990s. 11
As has been true of other new drug phenomena over many years, the peak years of
the crack cocaine “epidemic” were in retrospect relatively short-lived. As historian
David Musto has documented, drug epidemics often begin with a new drug
becoming rapidly embraced by young people and others. 12 After a few years, the
novelty of the drug wears off and the harmful nature of the substance becomes
increasingly well understood. This generally results in a change in community norms
to produce negative associations with the drug and hence, declining use among
potential new initiates.

11

Andrew Golub and Bruce D. Johnson, The Rise of Marijuana as the Drug of Choice Among Youthful

Adult Arrestees, National Institute of Justice, June 2001.
12

David F. Musto, The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control, New York: Oxford University

Press, 1999.

13

THE CHANGING RACIAL DYNAMICS OF THE WAR ON DRUGS

Changes in Drug Selling Patterns
As use of crack cocaine was declining in the 1990s, so too were the methods of its
sale in many cases. In criminologist Richard Curtis’s ethnographic studies in
Brooklyn, N.Y., he found that by the late 1990s many drug sellers had shifted their
transactions to indoor locations as well as limited their sales to people known to
them. 13 Regardless of the level of drug selling, such a shift had consequences for
communities and the court system. During the early years of the war on drugs, law
enforcement activity had been heavily focused on urban crack markets. This was a
contentious strategy. Police officials generally argued that the open-air drug markets
that were common in many disadvantaged communities were disruptive to
community life and needed to be challenged. Civil rights advocates and others
countered that the drug war was unfairly targeting drug activity in communities of
color, as well as underemphasizing approaches involving prevention and treatment.
Regardless of which position one may have supported, the decline in crack use, along
with changes in patterns of distribution, made it both more difficult and arguably
less necessary for law enforcement to exert such a heavy presence in these
communities.
Changes in Arrest Patterns
As we have seen, there has been a steady decline in the black proportion of drug
arrests (excluding marijuana possession) during the period 1999-2005.
Unfortunately, FBI arrest data categories are too broad to permit an analysis of
changes in arrest by specific type of drug, so there is no means by which to assess
whether changes in relative rates of use of crack cocaine or other drugs are driving
these trends. But given the changes in rates of crack cocaine use and distribution
patterns we have observed, it seems likely that at least part of the declining African
American share of drug arrests is related to these developments.

13

Richard Curtis, “The Improbable Transformation of Inner-City Neighborhoods: Crime, Violence,

Drugs, and Youth in the 1990s,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. Summer 1998, Vol. 88, 4.

14

THE CHANGING RACIAL DYNAMICS OF THE WAR ON DRUGS

Impact of Drug Courts or other Diversion Programs
Since the inception of drug courts in 1989 there has been a broad expansion of
interest and programming in this area. These courts vary significantly in many ways,
including criteria for admission, type of treatment programming, and impact on
sentencing. There remains debate regarding the degree to which these courts may
have a “net-widening” effect; that is, do they divert people from a term of
incarceration or bring under court supervision people who might otherwise not be
processed in the court system? There are not yet definitive findings in this regard,
but it is likely that at least in some jurisdictions there are people charged with a drug
offense who are diverted from a prison term due to drug court programming.
Whether such an outcome disproportionately benefits African Americans is in part a
function of the location of such diversion programs. To the extent that they are
located in urban areas with heavy concentrations of people of color as defendants,
this may be the case. In Brooklyn, New York, for example, the longstanding Drug
Treatment Alternative to Prison program operated by the District Attorney’s office
reports that 46% of its defendant population is African American and 46%
Hispanic. 14 Scholars such as Michael O’Hear, though, contend that the eligibility
criteria for drug court programs and length of prison terms for unsuccessful
participants may actually disadvantage African American defendants. 15
Impact of Sentencing Policies
The 21.6% decline in the number of African Americans incarcerated for a drug
offense is clearly consistent with declines of that magnitude in the black rate of arrest
and conviction during this period. In addition, to the extent that some portion of
this decline was related to declining arrests for crack cocaine offenses, this factor may
have contributed disproportionately to the decline. At the federal level there has

14

Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison, Seventeenth Annual Report, May 2008.

15

Micahel O’Hear, “Rethinking Drug Courts: Restorative Justice as a Response to Racial Injustice,”

Stanford Law and Policy Review, Vol. 20, April 2009.

15

THE CHANGING RACIAL DYNAMICS OF THE WAR ON DRUGS

been a great deal of attention to the broad sentencing disparity between punishments
for crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine offenses. But 13 states also maintain a
distinction in sentencing between the two drugs, albeit not as extreme as in the
federal system. 16 Therefore, to the extent that African Americans have been
disproportionately charged with crack cocaine offenses in the past, it is likely that
their sentences in these states were more severe than for persons convicted of other
drug charges.
It is important to note as well that despite the apparent declining impact of crack
cocaine on arrests and incarceration at the state level, there has been no
corresponding decline at the federal level. The number of federal prosecutions for
crack offenses remains substantial, and as we have seen, the overall number of people
in federal prison for a drug offense rose by 32.7% from 1999 to 2005. Racial
disparities persist as well, with African Americans constituting more than 80% of the
people convicted of a federal crack cocaine offense.

16

United States Sentencing Commission, Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy, May 2007, p. 98.

16

THE CHANGING RACIAL DYNAMICS OF THE WAR ON DRUGS

THE RISING WHITE PROPORTION OF DRUG OFFENSE
PRISON TERMS
As we have seen, the decline in black incarcerations for drug offenses has been
matched by a substantial rise in whites behind bars for drug offenses. Several possible
explanations may be at play in this regard.
First, we have seen over time that drug offense arrest rates are largely a function of
law enforcement practices, rather than absolute levels of drug use or selling. That is,
police agencies have in many cases concentrated resources on stemming drug traffic
in low-income communities of color. This is often justified by arguments that drug
selling in such neighborhoods is more likely to be disruptive to the community due
to open-air drug markets and therefore requires a law enforcement response. Such an
assertion is challenged by the argument that drug selling in many white communities
can be harmful to individuals and families as well, and that a heavy emphasis on law
enforcement diverts resources from prevention and community-building services that
would be more beneficial.
Regardless of how one sees these issues, there is little doubt that law enforcement
practices for many years disproportionately targeted minority neighborhoods. But as
noted above regarding the changing composition of (non-marijuana possession) drug
arrests, it is possible that whites are increasingly comprising a larger share of the drug
arrests that are more likely to result in a prison term.
Another possibility is that with the rise of methamphetamine in some states – a drug
used more by whites and Latinos than African Americans – increasing prosecutions
and prison terms are contributing to the white rise in imprisonment. While there is
some data to suggest that there are increasing numbers of persons serving prison
sentences for meth offenses, it is not clear what proportion of the overall increase is
due to this factor.

17

THE CHANGING RACIAL DYNAMICS OF THE WAR ON DRUGS

Looking at data from states with reported high rates of methamphetamine use, we
find some significant increases in imprisonment during the years covered in this
analysis. In Minnesota, an analysis produced by the Department of Corrections
documented a substantial increase in the number of persons incarcerated for a meth
offense, rising from 230 in 2001 to 1,127 in 2005, although there is no published
data on the racial composition of this population. 17 This increase accounted for
almost 90% of the growth of drug offense incarceration during this period.
In Iowa, a state with reported significant rates of meth use, the growth in
incarceration began prior to this time frame but continued throughout.
Methamphetamine offenses as a proportion of drug admissions increased from 31%
in 1995 to 68% by 2000, but then remained fairly steady through 2005 (66%),
although the overall number of persons admitted for a drug offense continued to
rise. 18 Extrapolating data from the Iowa report suggests that meth offenses
accounted for about three-fourths of the 395 person rise in drug admissions for the
period 1999-2005. Note, though, that admissions data are not necessarily
representative of the offense distribution of persons incarcerated in prison, due to
differing lengths of stay for various offenses.
While the data from these states lends support to the idea that increased
imprisonment for methamphetamine offenses is likely to have been responsible for
some portion of the overall white increase in incarceration, the relatively modest
number of states with a significant methamphetamine-using population also suggests
that it is probably not the only explanatory factor in this regard.
As with the examination of African Americans in prison for a drug offense, assessing
the rise in the number of whites in prison is a complex undertaking and one that
reflects criminal justice processing in all 50 states. Gaining an understanding of these

17

Methamphetamine Offenders in Prison, Minnesota Department of Corrections, November 2005.

18

Iowa Prison Population Forecast, FY 2005-2015, Iowa Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice

Planning, October 2005, p. 11.

18

THE CHANGING RACIAL DYNAMICS OF THE WAR ON DRUGS

dynamics will require a sustained examination in a variety of jurisdictions to observe
trends in programming and decision-making.

19

THE CHANGING RACIAL DYNAMICS OF THE WAR ON DRUGS

CONCLUSION
The decline in the number of African Americans incarcerated for drug offenses is a
significant development, coming as it does after several decades of unprecedented
expansion in incarceration of people of color. As we have seen in this analysis,
available data only suggest some of the factors that may have produced this outcome,
and it behooves policymakers and researchers to examine these trends in greater
detail.
While these trends are welcome as a possible indication of a change in policy and
practice, they need to be tempered by an assessment of the overall scale of
incarceration and punishment. Even with the declines noted here, there are still
900,000 African Americans incarcerated in the nation’s prisons and jails. To place
this in context, at the time of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, that
figure was 100,000. So despite a half century of advances in social and economic
opportunity, the role of incarceration in the lives of African Americans persists to a
degree that was unimaginable just a few decades ago.
Many of the driving forces that have contributed to these record numbers still remain
very much in place. The high level of drug arrests, widespread adoption of
mandatory sentencing policies, increase in length of prison terms, and other policies
continue to drive the prison population even as crime rates have generally declined
for more than a decade. And despite the decline in the number of African Americans
incarcerated for a drug offense, the overall record number of people in prison for a
drug offense still persists. While the racial dynamics of incarceration for drug
offenses have shifted, there remains the question of whether massive imprisonment
for drug problems is either an effective or compassionate strategy. If we are to see
any sustained reduction in incarceration there will need to be a broad scale
reexamination of these policies.

20

THE CHANGING RACIAL DYNAMICS OF THE WAR ON DRUGS

Elements of such a change are beginning to take shape. In recent years many states
have begun to reconsider the wisdom of some of their overly punitive sentencing
policies and have moved to scale these back or promote a greater array of diversionary
programs. Increasingly, these initiatives are propelled by fiscal concerns, as
policymakers recognize that skyrocketing corrections costs cut into public support for
higher education and other vital services. At the federal level, the U.S. Sentencing
Commission has enacted changes in the sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine
offenses, and members of Congress are considering proposals to reform the
mandatory penalties for crack offenses. Legislative action at the federal level is
particularly critical since, as we have seen, the number of persons incarcerated for a
drug offense continues to rise even as the state figures have stabilized.
It remains to be seen whether these initiatives represent the beginnings of substantial
change in the approach to substance abuse and policy safety, or are merely modest
reforms with little long-term impact. At a time when the nation is considering broad
scale change in a host of areas, this is an appropriate moment to reconsider our
public safety policy as well.

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