The U.S. drug war and racial disparities

By Bernd Debusmann
July 1, 2011

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.”


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)


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We had a program in NJ to get non-violent offenders out of the system early. This obviously saves on the cost of incarcerating them. The current governor, known for being somewhat thrifty, chose to save in other ways. He scrapped the early release and cut close to a billion from social programs two days ago, including distributing meds to hiv victims. Tough to change may be an understatement

Posted by auger | Report as abusive

It’s a well-known fact that the fiercest opponent to decriminalizing marijuana in California was the prison guards’ union. Why? Because a steady flow of non-violent pot smokers means job security. The for-profit prison industry also fought the recent referendum that just barely failed to pass.

Politicians on the right would rather cut social programs, emasculate public employee unions, fire teachers, and reduce health benefits to the elderly than cut prison funding.

Another strange fact is that incarcerated people in the USA are not counted in the work force. If they were the unemployment figures would rise dramatically.

Posted by IntoTheTardis | Report as abusive

It has been evident for decades that treatment works for addicts and alcoholics. The Obama administration’s increases in the 2011 drug control budget is good money after bad. The Drug Treatment Courts in the U.S. continue to prove that providing treatment for the addicts that continue to crowd our prisons saves money and reduces recidivism. Yet, the Drug Treatment Court funding continues to decrease and we just keep building more prisons. I fail to see any wisdom in this continued insanity.

Posted by jimmk | Report as abusive

I think that if you do not want to do the time, then don’t do the crime. Drug sales money is easy money, while restaurant kitchen work is hard. We can’t do a quota system on who goes to jail (people get to decide on their own). Maybe we can do better job in educating the next generation. Sometimes researchers find what they decided to find, and sometimes the people reporting do not have the background required to check the research.

Posted by fred5407 | Report as abusive

d3v: the difficulty to afford good lawyers seems part of the problem but a more important reason was spelled out in the Washington Post recently by Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project and David Cole of Georgetown university. They said: “In large measure, police find drugs were they look for them. Inner-city, open-air drug markets are easier to bust than those that operate out of suburban basements, and numerous studies show that minorities are stopped by police more often than whites. For example, a Center for Constitutional Rights study found that 87 percent of the 575,000 people stopped by police in New York City in 2009 were African American or Latino.”

Posted by Komment | Report as abusive

The criminal justice complex is alive and thriving while putting the greater society into financial and educational debt.

Juries and judges should be required to consider the financial implication of putting sentenced offenders behind bars. A portion of the incarceration costs should come out of judges salaries. We need to get radical to get reform moving!

Canada’s incarceration rate is 1/7th of the USA. No wonder their per capita debt is 1/3rd of that of America.

Until we have real leadership in government, these things will fester until we as Americans have to look insolvency in the face.

Posted by longboard96 | Report as abusive

Also, the Pentagon is using the drug war as an excuse to build military bases in Latin America: drug-wars-excuse-build-bases-latin-ameri ca/1307294580

fred5407: “Sometimes researchers find what they decided to find…”

You mean like, “I think that if you do not want to do the time, then don’t do the crime”?

Posted by BenjiSuman | Report as abusive

Well, I guess looking on the bright side, the USA remains number one in something.

Posted by libertadormg | Report as abusive

In my years working with youth-at risk I found some common denominators throughout: poor nutrition, limited parental supervision, and education was virtually non-existent. I sought to focus on education in my book, The Human Zoo, A Death Row Poetry Collection. By compiling poetry from authors facing capital punishment I hoped to break the cycle of violence by introducing juvenile offenders to the true nature of life & death in prison after a life time of incarceration. By informing young people of the vital importance of maintaining control of their own power and not relinquishing that control to a system that feeds on human life they can remain free. Working with kids aged 12-18 I told them, “I have good news and I have bad news.” Good news: you will make the decisions that will decide the rest of your life’s path. Bad news: you’re still children and you’re on your own.”
Education is the only real social security until we as a society commit to educating our children in a meaningful way all the Blue Ribbon Panels in the world mean nothing.

Posted by echobravotango | Report as abusive

Example of discrimination:

In 1971 at age 7, I was arrested for distribution of hash, then a narcotic and thus a felony. I was not “dealing” but gave it to someone for giving me a ride somewhere.

After numerous months of our attorney negotiating with the DA, I was offered youthful offenders treatment. A guilty plea to a misdemeanor and 3 years probation.

With my parents and attorney in a closed courtroom, the judge said, “You’re white and from a good family. You are going to get and keep a job and straighten out.”

Posted by GSH10 | Report as abusive

That is a typo, I was 17

Posted by GSH10 | Report as abusive

That is a typo, I was 17

Posted by GSH10 | Report as abusive

When asking a friend “how’s work,” he replies, “work is work.” I say that to say the following: I don’t think that the title, ” The U.S. drug war and racial disparities” has any relevance and is, in fact, a false dichotomy. Individuals, once mature, look forward to the day when they can choose their actions; instead of being parented. Perhaps unfortunately for many, the choices made frustrate health, success and acceptance. I am impressed when I meet those who have overcome adverse choices and move on to be real successes. Our society and department of justice should be like-minded instead of regarding humans as criminals for life.

Posted by awayneramsey | Report as abusive

“…blighted by racial disparities in drug law enforcement…” Ha! Whatta load of ultra-liberal race-baiting claptrap!

We’re talking blind justice here, not affirmative action policy. If African-American criminal activities result in “33.6% of drug arrests and 37% of state prison inmates,” and they do, then who cares about an irrelevant understated statistic of “around 12% of the U.S. population?”

Posted by jca | Report as abusive

jcs, I worked for law enforcement for 13 years. The statistics sighted have little basis in fact. One indisputable fact does remain. A higher percentage of the white population is arrested for drug paraphernalia and possession than the black population. The prison and jail population in this country is overwhelmingly black(around 60%) nationally. Hispanics account for almost 30%. Yet their total numbers in society do not exceed 30% of our population. I don’t know how one can square that with blind justice. The truth is neither conservative or liberal, it is just the truth.

Posted by coyotle | Report as abusive

This is to assume all cops making these arrests are white of course.

Posted by iflydaplanes | Report as abusive