Decline in blacks in prison for drug crimes reverses 25-year trend
Reduced crack use and criminal justice reforms may have contributed to the 20 percent drop.
For the first time in a quarter century, the number of African-Americans incarcerated for drug offenses in state prisons has declined more than 20 percent while the number of white imprisoned drug offenders has increased more than 40 percent.Skip to next paragraph
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The decline took place over a six year period from 1999 to 2005 and reflects fundamental changes in the so-called "war on drugs" – how it's targeted and prosecuted – as well as the waning of the crack epidemic in predominantly minority urban areas and the increase in methamphetamine abuse in largely white rural neighborhoods.
The trends were identified in an analysis of Justice Department statistics released Tuesday by The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice and reform nonprofit in Washington, D.C. The study found that an increase in the number of drug courts and state-level efforts to find alternatives to incarceration may have played a role in bringing about the change.
"Over the last year or two, largely because of the fiscal crisis, states around the country are reconsidering many of their sentencing and incarceration policies, particularly for lower level drug offenses," says Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project and author of the study. "So it seems reasonably likely that we could see some decline in the overall number of people incarcerated for drug offenses."
According to the study, the number of blacks in state prisons on drug-related charges dropped from 144,700 in 1999 to 113,500 in 2005. The number of white drug-offenders in prison increased during the same time from 50,700 to 72,300.
Perceptions of racial bias
When the government ramped up the war on drugs in the 1980s, violent open-air crack markets plagued many urban areas. These areas became the focus of police drug enforcement efforts and crack use invited harsh mandatory minimum sentences.
That led to an exponential increase in the number of imprisoned drug offenders from 40,000 in 1980 to more than 500,000 today, according to Justice Department statistics.
The majority of incarcerated drug offenders have been African-American – despite the fact that drug abuse rates are fairly equal across ethnic and racial lines – and that fed a widespread perception that law enforcement efforts were racially biased.
One impact of the new report, say criminologists, could be that law enforcement will no longer be perceived as biased.
For years, the disproportionately large percentage of imprisoned African-American drug offenders fueled calls for reform of local police departments as well as the national criminal sentencing structure. Professor Caulkins doesn't want to diminish the presence of racial bias, which he says still exists to some extent in most American institutions, but he contends that incarceration disparities may have had more to do with the nature of the drug epidemic than with overt bias.
In the 1980s, for instance, many urban neighborhoods plagued by the crack epidemic became openly violent. So that's where police targeted their efforts, he says.