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Report Details Racially-Biased Enforcement of Drug Laws in Cuyahoga County, Ohio

Jag Davies,
Drug Law Reform Project
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August 1, 2008

Gradually, it is becoming common knowledge that even though a white American is just as likely to use or sell drugs, if you’re African-American, you are many times more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for a drug law violation.

The new report by Mona Lynch, Ph.D., “Selective Enforcement of Drug Laws in Cuyahoga County, Ohio: A Report on the Racial Effects of Geographic Disparities in Arrest Patterns”published in January by Citizens for a Safe & Fair Cleveland (CSFC) and made public for the first time last week – lays bare the intricacies of how this dynamic has taken shape in Cleveland’s criminal justice system.

The report’s roots go back to a series of discussions dubbed “Incarceration Nation,” where the ACLU of Ohio brought together a diverse array of voices on this subject. Through these discussions, community members realized that more needed to be done to monitor law enforcement policies to ensure safety and fairness in Cleveland and its surrounding areas. Thus, the participants created CSFC in March 2007 to discuss issues of law enforcement, judicial equity, and community relations. Organizational members of CSFC include the ACLU of Ohio, Cleveland Chapter NAACP, Cleveland Job Corp Academy, and 100 Black Men, as well as a number of community leaders, advocates and stakeholders.

Kudos to Dan Harkins, who published an insightful article on Lynch’s report and CSFC for the Cleveland Scene.

Lynch’s report explains the disparities in prosecutors’ charging decisions for drug possession violations in the different jurisdictions within Cuyahoga County. Lynch found that Cleveland prosecutors are more likely to charge low-level drug law violations – such as possession of drug paraphernalia containing infinitesimal amounts of drug residue – as drug possession felonies compared to their counterparts in other parts of Cuyahoga County, who are more likely to charge the same offense as a misdemeanor.

Lynch concluded that, “Since the city population is majority nonwhite, whereas the surrounding county population is overwhelmingly white, the differential enforcement practices disproportionately impact the non-white population of the county.”

The result? In 2005, 81 percent of all county drug arrests involved black people, despite the fact that only 27 percent of country residents are African-American.

Let’s hope Cleveland’s leaders have the courage and common sense to bring an end to this blatant racial injustice. The time has come to make a systemic shift away from the arrest and incarceration of low-level, nonviolent drug users and toward a more efficient, effective model that frees up criminal justice resources to focus on serious, violent crime.

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