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Black Drug Incarceration Drops 21.6%, White Rate Up 42.6%; Shift Driven by Decreasing Crack Cocaine Use, Increasing Meth Use

The number of people incarcerated in state prisons for drug offenses has increased an astronomical 1,150 percent since 1980, increasing from 40,000 to 500,000 prisoners, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics cited in a research paper by The Sentencing Project (TSP). The number of people now incarcerated for drug offenses exceeds the 1980 prison population for all offenses.

Interestingly, between 1999 and 2005 – the most recent data available – state drug offense incarcerations remained virtually unchanged, rising less than 1 percent from 251,200 to 253,300, TSP reported. Yet, the racial composition of state drug offenders shifted dramatically.

Today, two-thirds of drug offenders in state prisons are African American or Latino. Even so, between 1999 and 2005, the number of African American drug offenders dropped 21.6 percent from 144,700 in 1999, to 113,500 in 2005, the study found. In 2005, African Americans represented 12 percent of all drug users, but 34 percent of those arrested, and 45 per-cent of those incarcerated for a drug offense, down from 57.6 percent incarcerated in 1999.

During the same period, Latino state drug confinements remained steady, dropping only 1.9 percent from 52,100 in 1999 to 51,100 in 2005, reports TSP. Meanwhile, white state drug offenders increased 42.6 percent from 50,700 in 1999 to 72,300 in 2005.

The study questions numerous possibilities for such a dramatic racial shift. After examining and disregarding factors including increased federal prosecutions, declining drug use, and declining drug arrest rates, the report suggested that the decline in African American drug incarcerations is likely attributed to the substantial decline in crack cocaine addiction since its peak in the late 1980s. Similarly, the sharp increase in white drug incarcerations appears to be due primarily to the increase in methamphetamine use – a drug used much more by whites and Latinos than by African Americans. Minnesota, for example, saw a substantial meth increase between 2001 and 2005, rising from 230 to 1,127. It is believed that meth incarcerations accounted for nearly 90 percent of the state’s prison growth during this time. Similar trends can be found across the nation, lending “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,” TSP found. Still, “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.”

“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,” the report concluded. “If we are to see any sustained reduction in incarceration there will need to be a broad scale reexamination of these policies.”

See: The Changing Racial Dynamics of the War on Drugs, The Sentencing Project (April 2009), available at The Sentencing Project, 514 Tenth St. NW, Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20004, (202) 628-0871,

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