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Human Rights Study Shows That Decades Later Blacks Still Incarcerated More

In March 2009 a report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) organization indicated that blacks continue to be arrested at disproportionately high rates in this country’s war on drugs.

The study spanned almost three decades and showed that from 1980 to 2007 blacks in the U.S. were arrested from 2.8 to 5.5 times more than whites. It also showed that, in a state-to-state breakdown, the disparity was even greater.

Data gathered for the study came from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program. Human Rights Watch obtained UCR data detailing drug arrests by race and type of offense from 1980 thru 2006. Population data was obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Between 1980 and 2007 the U.S. has incarcerated over 25.4 million adults on drug charges. Every year the number of arrests increased for both blacks and whites. But the increase for blacks increased by 4.8 times compared to only a 3.2 fold increase for whites.

HRW Research indicates that blacks and whites use drugs at roughly the same rate. Yet 33 percent of all drug arrestees in this country are black even though blacks only make up 13 percent of the population. In 1980 drug arrests for blacks was 544 per 100,000 compared to only 190 for whites. In 2007 that number had increased to 1,721 per 100,000 for blacks and 476 for whites.

The figures become more alarming when broken down by state. Illinois arrests blacks at a rate of 4,210 per 100,000 compared to 857 whites. For Nebraska the ratio is 4,043 for blacks and 558 for whites. The numbers for California are 3,150 to 1,029 respectively. Vermont 2,681-to-310; Oregon 3,626-to-607; West Virginia 2,599-to-376. Iowa by far has the most alarming numbers at 3,287-to-291. That reflects an arrest rate of 11.3 times higher for blacks than whites. (See also PLN Nov. 2008, page 29) Hawaii has the most equitable ratio at 428-to-214. Not one single state in the U.S arrests whites at a higher rate than blacks when it comes to drugs.

Ironically, the lowest disparity in arrests occurred in 1981 when black drug arrests were only 2.8 times that of whites. The highest rate of discrimination occurred between 1988 and 1993 when black drug offenders were consistently arrested over five times more than their white counterparts.

The net result of this discriminatory practice is the over-incarceration of blacks since “at least two-thirds of drug ar-rests result in a criminal conviction.” Blacks account for almost half (46%) of all drug convictions in state courts. The rate of incarceration for those convicted is 71 percent for blacks as opposed to 63 percent for white drug offenders.

An analysis of the data for 2003 led researchers to conclude that “relative to population, blacks are 10.1 times more likely than whites to be sent to prison for drug offenses.” The Human Rights Watch study described the toll taken on the black community as “incalculable” and described the overall practice as “unjust.”

The report also emphasized that the solution does not lie in attempting to incarcerate whites at a higher rates. Re-searchers recommended five areas in which the solution to drug abuse in this country would be more effective: 1) restructured funding with an emphasis on treatment and prevention; 2) An emphasis on community-based sanctions and the elimination of mandatory minimums; 3) comprehensive analyses of current policies that unfairly target blacks; 4) rethink the manner in which local police are deployed to unfairly targets black neighborhoods; and 5) study patterns in police stops to determine the extent to which racial profiling influences arrests.

In its own words, “A fresh and evidence-based rethinking of the drug war paradigm is needed.” Source: Decades of Disparity: Drug Arrests and Race in the United States. The report is on PLN’s website.

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