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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.

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"When the sellers are flagrant, then the No. 1 concern is the lack of social order," he says. By contrast, "when the sellers are invisible to the neighbors [as in many affluent white neighborhoods], then you still have the public health problem of addiction and overdose, and that's what you focus on – not law enforcement."

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"The difference isn't middle class or poor, white or black, meth or crack," he argues. "The question is: Are the sellers invisible to neighbors?"

Crack dealers who once operated openly on urban street corners have now largely disappeared behind closed doors and disposable cellphone numbers, making them harder for police to track, according to The Sentencing Project report.

Criminal justice reforms a factor?

Other criminologists still see clear racial bias in the way the justice system prosecutes the war on drugs. Apart from the disproportionate incarceration rates, they point to differences in sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine compared with powder cocaine. The two are chemically identical, but the penalties for crack – predominantly used by minorities – remain much harsher than for powder cocaine, which is predominantly used by whites.

The disparity, though, has been reduced in recent years.

That and other reforms of the criminal justice system, such as the development of drug courts in the 1990s which offered treatment in lieu of prison, are also contributing to the decline in the number of African-Americans imprisoned for drug offenses. Mr. Mauer of The Sentencing Project says that's probably because the majority of the more than 2,000 drug courts are located in urban areas.

New York State, which implemented a series of alternatives to incarceration such as drug courts, is a good example of how such policy changes helped lower incarceration rates. In 1999, New York state prisons held about 22,000 people in prison for drug offenses, according to Mauer. By 2005, that had dropped about a third to 14,000.

The state also shows a rise in the number of whites incarcerated for drug offences. In January 2001, whites accounted for 5.4 percent of drug offenders in the New York state prisons. In 2009, that figure had almost doubled to about 10 percent, according to the Correctional Association of New York.

"There have been some modest shifts," says Robert Gangi, of the New York Correctional Association. "But people of color still make up a disproportionately large percentage."

That's led some analysts to argue that the racial shift in national incarceration rates does not reflect changing police and prosecution practices within states so much as the increase in methamphetamine use in many Western and Midwestern states.

"I have no doubt that explains part of the white numbers, because whites are more likely to be arrested for those offenses," says Mauer. "But it's a relatively modest number of states where meth is a problem," he adds.

The question, he says, is whether those meth use numbers are sufficient to explain part or all of the increase in white incarceration rates. "I'm not sure the scale of the change can be explained by that."