Drug war targets blacks, report says

Thursday, June 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

They're sent to prison on drug charges at higher rates than whites, Human Rights Watch finds

A new study by Human Rights Watch concludes that the nation's war on drugs overwhelmingly has targeted blacks - even though most drug offenders are white.

Researchers found that 62.7 percent of the drug offenders admitted to state prisons are black and that black men are sent to state prison on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men. Nationwide, one in every 20 black men over the age of 18 is in prison.

The greatest racial disparities were in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Maine, Iowa, Maryland, Ohio, New Jersey, North Carolina and West Virginia. Black men were sent to prison on drugs charges at 27 to 57 times the rate of white men in those states.

In Texas, researchers determined that black men are sent to prison on drug charges at 19 times the rate of white men. For all offenses, black men are incarcerated at 12 times the rate of whites. One out of 14 black men in Texas is in prison, compared with one out of every 172 white men.

"Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs," is described by officials with Human Rights Watch as the first state-by-state analysis of the role of race and drugs in prison admissions.

"These racial disparities are a national scandal," said Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "Black and white drug offenders get radically different treatment in the American justice system. This is not only profoundly unfair to blacks, it also corrodes the American ideal of equal justice for all."

Primary responsibility

The report asserts that "drug control policies bear primary responsibility for the quadrupling of the national prison population since 1980 and a soaring incarceration rate, the highest among western democracies."

Jamie Fellner, associate counsel for the group and the report's author, said prison demographics do not reflect drug use in the United States. Previous studies have shown that whites make up the majority of drug users.

"The solution to this racial inequity is not to incarcerate more whites, but to reduce the use of prison for low-level drug offenders and to increase the availability of substance abuse treatment," she said.

The report makes several recommendations. Among them:

A re-evaluation of current strategies for fighting drugs, in particular, the costs and benefits of relying on incarceration.

The elimination of minimum sentencing laws based on prior criminal record and the amount of drugs sold.

Increased availability of alternative sanctions for nonviolent drug offenders and increased use of special drug courts where addicted criminal offenders can opt for supervised substance abuse treatment.

The refocusing of law enforcement on importers, manufacturers and major distributors of drugs instead of "low-level'' offenders.

The elimination of different sentencing structures for powder cocaine and crack cocaine.

The elimination of racial profiling by police.

"The extraordinary number of nonviolent drug offenders sent to prison bespeaks a nation determined to 'send a message' about drugs and crime regardless of whether prison is ineffective, cruel and unduly costly compared to other ways of responding to drugs,'' the report states. "While drug abuse and drug trafficking warrant concerted national efforts, it may be that the human, social, and economic costs of the prison 'cure' is worse than the 'disease' itself.''

Several studies in recent years have challenged the effectiveness, and fairness, of the nation's drug policies. And those policies increasingly are being re-examined.

Police agencies are under fire for what is perceived as racially motivated practices.

Hillary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington Bureau, suggests that racial profiling is, in part, responsible.

"The assumption that African-Americans and Hispanics...are more likely to have drugs and consequently are stopped more often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, he said. "Even though, when you look at who's actually using illegal drugs, we don't make up the predominate number."

He predicts that historians will look upon the incarceration rates for blacks as "an extremely sad period in our common American lives."

"We've maintained a lot of our discriminatory nature even as we've come out of slavery - slavery to Jim Crow, moving into the civil-rights movement, trying to open doors of opportunity," Mr. Shelton said. "But even as we've moved and progressed, many of the same problems exist under different titles and different names."

Prison overcrowding

Many prison experts acknowledge that drug convictions have contributed to prison overcrowding. And some question whether the prison-construction boom, prompted in no small measure by drug convictions, can, or should, be sustained.

Drug czar Barry McCaffrey has advocated an expansion of drug courts that offer nonviolent drug offenders supervised treatment as an alternative to time behind bars.

Bob Weiner, a spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said that at a national conference in December, law enforcement and drug treatment experts from across the nation strongly supported drug treatment to reduce arrests and imprisonment for nonviolent offenders.

Mr. Weiner said federal funding for drug treatment has increased substantially in the last five years, as has the number of "drug courts" that look to alternatives to incarceration.

And, he said, the administration has condemned racial profiling and recognizes that "drug abuse is not an inner-city, poor, minority problem."

The Human Rights Watch report relied on raw data from the National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It is based on data reported for 1996. A total of 37 states provided information to the NCRP for that year.

The study relied on the racial descriptions in the raw data. Because Hispanics not were identified in the data provided by several states, the Human Rights Watch report does not include statistics on Hispanics.