The U.S. drug war and racial disparities
Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
The numbers tell the story of a criminal justice system blighted by racial disparities in drug law enforcement: African-Americans make up around 12 percent of the U.S. population, account for 33.6 percent of drug arrests and 37 percent of state prison inmates serving time for drug offenses.
The figures come from Human Rights Watch, a New York-based watchdog which complains in its 2011 report about “overwhelming racial disparities” in drug incarcerations despite the fact that blacks and whites engage in drug offenses at equivalent rates. The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group which has tracked disparities in the criminal justice system for the past 25 years, says the black-white gap cannot be explained by disproportionate criminal behavior.
While African-Americans are the minority most affected by racial disparities, they are not the only one, according to Human Rights Watch: “Black non-Hispanic males are incarcerated at a rate more than six times that of white non-Hispanic males and 2.6 times that of Hispanic males. One in 10 black males aged 25-29 were in prison or jail in 2009; for Hispanic males the figure was 1 in 25; for white males only 1 in 64.”
Such statistics have been studied for years by academics, lawyers, and law enforcement experts but public debate has been subdued. This is changing in the wake of sharply critical reports timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs in June. There is growing recognition that the war has been a costly mistake.
But winding it down would require fresh thinking at all levels of the government and the criminal justice establishment and there is little evidence of that from the man who, in January 2004, declared that “the war on drugs has been an utter failure. We need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws … we need to rethink how we’re operating in the drug war. Currently, we are not doing a good job.” That was then-state Senator Barack Obama, no stranger to drugs in his youth.
In his memoir, “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance”, he wrote that when he felt down “pot had helped, and booze, maybe a little blow (cocaine) when you could afford it.” Good thing he wasn’t caught – many of the young black men arrested for drug offenses and thus getting a criminal record find it virtually impossible to get a job.
Their plight is documented in a detailed examination of racial inequality in the American criminal justice system, a book titled “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness“, by Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer. She argues that the crackdown on drug use initiated by Nixon revived old racial biases and are a new form of segregation.
“Once you are labeled a felon,” she writes, “the old forms of discrimination – employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights … than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it.”
THE WORLD’S LEADING JAILER
This is a harsh judgment and food for a debate which might hasten a long overdue review of the criminal justice system and an investigation into why the United States is the world’s leading jailer. It has 5 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of the world’s prisoners and an incarceration rate five times as high as the rest of the world.
There will be no quick answer, and no quick exit strategy from the drug war. Legislation is pending – the National Criminal Justice Commission Act – for the establishment of a blue-ribbon commission to review the criminal justice system and recommend reforms within 18 months.
The bill is sponsored by Lindsay Graham, a Republican Senator from South Carolina, and Jim Webb, a Democratic Senator from Virginia, and won the backing in June of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, an organization that represents cities with a population of 30,000 or more. The mayors noted the need to reduce incarceration, reform drug policies and eliminate racial disparities.
How likely is this to happen? There is reason for pessimism. Since Obama took office, the rhetoric on drugs and incarceration has changed. The president’s drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, said early in his tenure he would drop the phrase “the war on drugs” and observed that “we cannot arrest ourselves of this problem.”
The new language did not translate into deeds. The Obama administration’s 2011 drug control budget includes a 13 percent increase in anti-drug spending for the Pentagon and an 18 percent increase in the drug control funds for the Bureau of Prisons.
The biggest obstacles for change are entrenched interests. By some estimates, getting the prison population back to where it was (in terms of percentage of the overall population) before the drug war began would cost the jobs of at least a million people working for the criminal justice system. Not to forget the damage reduced incarceration would do to the flourishing private prison industry.
(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters)