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Racial Disparities in Drug Arrests: Same as It Ever Was

Dan Berger,
Drug Law Reform Project
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May 12, 2008

Last week saw the release of a pair of reports elucidating anew the racial bias that underlies America's response to illegal drug use. While rates of drug use are virtually identical across racial lines, African-Americans are arrested and incarcerated at a rate far outpacing the rest of the population. As detailed in the reports from the Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch, in 2006 two-thirds of those arrested for a drug violation were white and a third African-American, despite African-Americans comprising only 12.8 percent of the population and a comparable percentage of drug users.

Drug war apologists seek to explain away this gross racial injustice by claiming that police are merely focusing resources where violent crime and community complaints are most prevalent - namely, in inner-city African-American communities. If, the argument goes, a few extra African-American drug users wind up incarcerated due to this wholly sensible allocation of police resources, so be it. But this tired excuse no longer holds water, if it ever did, when police make more arrests for non-violent drug possession than any other crime.

In recently released figures you likely won't see law enforcement trumpeting on your local news, we've learned that our scarce public safety resources most often go toward ferreting out low-level drug offenders rather than murderers, rapists and other violent criminals. There were more arrests for drug abuse violations in 2006 (an estimated 1.9 million arrests, or 13.1 percent of the total number of arrests) than for any other offense. Furthermore, 82.5 percent of these arrests were for simple possession, and nearly half of these for marijuana.

When these numbers are taken into account along with drug use rates, the contention that the racial disparity in drug arrests is merely a byproduct of law enforcement's focus on violent crime or a reflection of African-Americans' greater appetite for drugs can be clearly seen for what it is: absurd.

When drug arrests, most for possession, have become law enforcement's most frequent function, and when these arrests are marked by patent racial disparity, they cannot be written-off as side effects of legitimate enforcement patterns.

The bottom line is that prohibition of consensual activity, such as drug use, will always open the door to selective enforcement. These crimes, almost by definition, lack a complaining witness or victim, meaning that law enforcement must be granted significant discretion in selecting where and whom to investigate for such crimes. Unfortunately, in the case of drug law enforcement, selective targeting of the African-American community has been effectively institutionalized, as further evidenced by last week's reports.

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