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Originally published Wednesday, April 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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State prisons see drop in blacks held for drugs

For the first time since crack cocaine sparked a war on drugs 20 years ago, the number of black Americans in state prisons for drug offenses has fallen sharply, while the number of white prisoners convicted of drug crimes has increased, according to a report released Tuesday.

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — For the first time since crack cocaine sparked a war on drugs 20 years ago, the number of black Americans in state prisons for drug offenses has fallen sharply, while the number of white prisoners convicted of drug crimes has increased, according to a report released Tuesday.

The Washington-based Sentencing Project reported that the number of black inmates in state prisons for drug offenses had fallen from 145,000 in 1999 to 113,500 in 2005, a 21 percent decline. Over the same period, the number of white drug offenders rose steadily, from 50,000 to more than 72,000, a 42 percent increase. The number of Latino drug offenders was virtually unchanged at about 51,000.

The findings represent a significant shift in the racial makeup of those incarcerated for drugs and could signal a gradual change in the demographics of the nation's prison population of 2 million, which has been disproportionately black for decades. Drug offenders make up about a quarter of the overall prison population.

The Sentencing Project report and other experts said the numbers could reflect two factors: an increased reliance by prosecutors and judges on prison alternatives such as drug courts, and a shift in police focus to methamphetamines, which are used and distributed mostly by white Americans.

The report relied heavily on data compiled by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics and covered six years ending in 2005, the last year the bureau broke down the state prison population by race and drug offense.

African-American drug offenders, who have been convicted most often for dealing and possessing crack cocaine, still made up a disproportionate share of the total, 44 percent in 2005. That was down from nearly 58 percent six years earlier, but still represented a disproportionate share, because black Americans make up only about 12 percent of the U.S. population.

The number of white state drug offenders rose from 20 percent to 29 percent, and Latino prisoners made up 20 percent of inmates.

"I have no doubt that crystal meth explains some of the white increase, but I'm not ready to say it's the reason for all of the white increase," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which opposes stiff penalties for nonviolent drug crimes. "It's also hard to imagine that [drug courts] are not having some effect. Most drug courts are in urban areas where African Americans live."

Twenty percent of white inmates used methamphetamines in the month before they were arrested, compared with 1 percent of black inmates, according to interviews conducted in the nation's 14,500 state prisons and 3,700 federal prisons.

Drug courts offer nonviolent offenders the option of undergoing rigorous substance-abuse treatment and criminal rehabilitation or going to jail. There are more than 2,000 such courts in operation, mostly in cities with large black communities that were ravaged by violence associated with crack cocaine. White suspects also are increasingly winding up in drug courts for abusing methamphetamines.

Mauer also hypothesized that drug dealers might have shifted from open-air crack-cocaine markets to dealing indoors, making them harder for police to bust. And he speculated that because so many African-American men have been incarcerated, there are fewer on the street to be arrested.

But James Felman, co-chairman of the Sentencing Committee for the American Bar Association, said that in Tampa, Fla., where he practices law, police are still arresting black suspects for crack possession and distribution, and handing out long sentences.

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"I can't second-guess their study, but I haven't seen a change," Felman said. "Maybe we're getting smarter on crime in some states. That could be part of it."

The war on drugs began in 1986, when Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act to combat violence associated with the crack-cocaine trade. Lawmakers were prompted by the death of University of Maryland basketball player Len Bias, who they mistakenly believed had died from ingesting crack. Bias overdosed on powder cocaine.

Last year, then-Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., joined several of his colleagues in saying his support of the legislation was a mistake.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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