Drug Arrests and Mass Black Incarceration

It’s estimated today that roughly one out of every three black men will be imprisoned in either a state or federal correctional facility in their lifetimes. This is a shocking number not only because of its absolute disproportionality — white men will face prison time at a rate one-eighth that of black men — but also because black imprisonment has grown nearly unabated during a time when arrests for violent crimes have fallen overall.

Jonathan Rockwell, a Fellow at the Brookings Institute, recently reported data showing that arrests for Back Americans were declining in key categories of crime. Specifically, over the past thirty years, annual arrests for property crimes (think burglary and various types of theft) have fallen by more than 70,000 while arrests for violent crimes (think rape and murder) have fallen by roughly 2,600. And yet, as mentioned earlier, incarceration now more than ever has become a standard life event for too many blacks — especially black men with low rates of education.

The cause of these diverging trends stems in large part from the war on drugs. Over the same time period that arrests for property and violent crimes have gone down, non-violent drug related arrests have boomed with nearly 1 million more arrests occurring in 2011 than in 1980 for crimes related to drug abuse and paraphernalia possession. Click for graph.

Brookings graph

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this trend is that blacks seem to be subjected to a very different set of rules than their white neighbors. According to available survey and research data, Rockwell reports that whites are just as, if not more, likely to sell and use drugs relative to blacks. In fact, surveys of college students repeatedly show that white students are typically 25 percent more likely to report using drugs in the past month relative to their black peers. In other words blacks and whites both use and sell drugs, but blacks bear the brunt of rising arrest rates.

Granted, not everyone arrested for these crimes goes to prison, but over the same period of time, the likelihood that an individual will be sent to prison, especially for less serious offenses has increased. Add the fact  that prison sentences are growing longer for those sentenced to prison and you have a recipe for mass (black) imprisonment.

In essence, there are a host of criminal justice reforms federal and state lawmakers can (and should) back to change these trends. Decriminalization of certain drug and nonviolent crimes, increase spending on alternatives to prison and rehabilitative programs, and the elimination of mandatory minimum and truth in sentencing laws would all help. But even if all of these things were to go into effect, there would still be marked disparities in application and outcomes. In part these are driven by socioeconomic disparities, but at the base of even that is racism. And ridding our criminal justice system of racism — as is ridding the broader society of racism — is a task that legislation cannot fix and one that will take much more time and effort to correct.

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