Casualties of War


On any given day in 1991, five out of every nine young black men who live in Baltimore were in some trouble with the law. A study released in September by the Alexandria, Virginia-based National Center on Institutions and Alternatives says the drug war is largely responsible for this state of affairs.

The NCIA study reports that on an average day, 56 percent of the city's 61,000 black men between the ages of 18 and 35 were either in prison, on parole or probation, being sought on arrest warrants, or awaiting trial. An April NCIA study found 42 percent of Washington, D.C.'s young black males in legal trouble. Timothy J. Roche, project director at NCIA, says "these patterns mirror other cities with large minority populations."

Nearly 13,000 persons were arrested for possessing, selling, or making drugs in Baltimore last year—more than three times the number arrested for committing violent crimes. This represented 24 percent of all arrests. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that whites make up 77 percent of drug users, blacks 15 percent, and Latinos 8 percent—similar to the racial composition of the country as a whole. But last year in Baltimore, where blacks constitute 60 percent of the population, 86 percent of those arrested for nonviolent drug offenses were black.

That a disproportionate number of blacks would be arrested for selling drugs isn't surprising: Inner-city neighborhoods have a higher black population than the suburbs, and urban drug deals often take place on street corners or in other conspicuous areas. But the figures are startling nonetheless: Of those Baltimore juveniles arrested for the sale or manufacture of drugs, 13 were white, more than 1,300 black.

The study indicts drug warriors for incarcerating nonviolent drug users and street-corner dealers while ignoring such alternative sanctions as drug treatment, victim restitution, and mentoring programs. Roche also says such politically popular law-enforcement tools as mandatory minimum sentences don't let agents of the criminal-justice system "tailor sentences to meet the severity of the offense and the characteristics of the offenders." (See Trends, February.)

The release of the study led Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke to again call for decriminalizing drug use. "We have to take the profit out of drug trafficking," Schmoke told the Baltimore Sun. "I know people will say 'there he goes again' talking about decriminalization, but the policies that we have aren't working."

While Roche believes drug legalization should be considered, he hopes the debate over legalization won't deflect attention from the reforms his group seeks.