Drug Policy

Race and America's "Shameful Prisons"


Writing in the latest New York Review of Books, Georgetown University law professor David Cole has a long and provocative review of three new books dealing with race, criminal justice, and America's "shameful prisons." There are a few things to disagree with, but Cole correctly pinpoints the Drug War's central role in the whole mess:

Much of the extraordinary growth in the prison and jail population is attributable to a dramatic increase in prosecution and imprisonment for drug offenses. President Reagan declared a "war on drugs" in 1982, and the states eagerly followed suit. From 1980 to 1997, [Glenn C. ] Loury tells us, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses increased by 1,100 percent. Drug convictions alone account for more than 80 percent of the total increase in the federal prison population from 1985 to 1995. In 2008, four of five drug arrests were for possession, and only one in five was for distribution; fully half of all drug arrests were for marijuana offenses.

African-Americans have borne the brunt of this war. From 1985 to 1991, the number of white drug offenders in state prisons increased by 110 percent; the number of black drug offenders grew by 465 percent. The average time served by African-Americans for drug crimes grew by 62 percent between 1994 and 2003, while white drug offenders served 17 percent more time. Though 14 percent of monthly drug users are black, roughly equal to their proportion of the general population, they are arrested and imprisoned at vastly disproportionate rates: 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses are black as well as 56 percent of those in state prisons for drug offenses. Blacks serve almost as much time in prison for drug offenses (average of 58.7 months) as whites do for violent crimes (average of 61.7 months). [Citations removed.]

Read the full thing here. Reason on drugs here.

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  1. Maybe you should check interracial crime statistics.

    What is the murder rate among the black population vs. the white population?

    1. Since the statistics in question specifically deal with incarceration for drug crimes, the other statistics you are demanding aren’t relevant.

      Those statistics could only be relevant if you want the conversation to go something like this:

      Damon: “Blacks who break the drug laws are incarcerated more often than whites, and given more time, for the same underlying offenses.”

      You: “Well, since blacks commit a lot of interracial crimes, that means we have to apply the drug laws unequally, ’cause once we got a black guy in the system we gots to keeps him there. If we don’t use the drug laws to abuse blacks, more blacks will be walking free, and then they might commit some other completely unrelated interracial crime!”

      Does that just about summarize your position?

  2. Are there similar stats for Prohibition — not just race, but also ethnicity?

  3. Jiang read studiously from a text “about the glorious history of China and the folly of attempts to influence her internal affairs.” On and on he droned. At length, an exasperated Clinton interrupted. Look, he said. I don’t want to meddle in your internal affairs. I don’t even mind your prisons. I plan on putting more people in ours myself. All you need to do, Clinton confided, is to make a few gestures about human rights, and here are a couple of suggestions.

  4. “From 1985 to 1991, the number of white drug offenders in state prisons increased by 110 percent; the number of black drug offenders grew by 465 percent.”

    Perhaps more blacks offend our drug laws. That’s as good an interpretation of these stats as any.

    1. And by offend our drug laws I mean doing stupid shit like smoking weed in public and dealing on the street. I rarely see whites, Asians and Hispanics smoking weed in public. And I don’t know a single white, Hispanic or Asian that deals on the steet. They are smart enough to deal from home.

    2. Though 14 percent of monthly drug users are black, roughly equal to their proportion of the general population, they are arrested and imprisoned at vastly disproportionate rates

      1. Yes, I read that, but the fact remains, blacks tend to be stupid when it comes to evading drug laws. When you smell weed in a major central business district, 9.8 times out of 10 it’s black folk. I would contend that is why they are arrested at a disproportionate rate. Same thing with dealing. Their business model is stupid.

        1. Wow! You’ve certainly done your research.

        2. 4 out of 5 patients recommend your bullshit statistics to their patients who chew gum.

        3. “9.8 times out of 10?”

          That’s pretty precise for a useless assertion based purely on personal anecdotes.

  5. Drugz are bad, mm’kay?

    1. But apparently worse if you’re black.

  6. So by “offend our drug laws”, you mean something other than actually breaking our drug laws.

    That’s nice to know.

    I knew that already anyway, since the entire reason the drug laws exist is to allow the police to harass and arrest minority males who make the mistake of being in public, where they can frighten bedwetting douchebags.

  7. The feds have too much money and indict lots of cases traditionally handled in state court. They do it to raise the number of cases run thru federal court. This is done of course to keep or increase funding levels. The worst part of it is the brazen federal indictment of poor black kids who are users who may sell tiny amounts to support their habits. These kids are included in conspiracy cases where evidence is soley typically the word of a “co-conspirator” often one or more who are more culpable. And they are subject to the draconian mandatory minimums which can only be evaded by a motion by the government.

  8. Shut the fuck up, Ronald Reagan.

  9. Calling Mr. Jackson. Calling Mr. Sharpton. Calling Ms. Winfrey. Yoo Hoo. Here’s a crusade worth taking up.

  10. Sadly, although African-Americans are only 13% of the population, they account for roughly 50% of all murderers and victims. Most of those murders are related to the drug trade. Unless we presume there is no correlation between a willingness to murder and other serious drug related crimes we should expected to find African-Americans incarcerated at higher rates than whites (who are incarcerated at higher rates than Asians.)

    Usually, these agenda statistics use a definition of “drug offense” that is so broad as to be meaningless: Someone caught with half a roach is counted the same as someone caught with a ton of coke. People who plead down from violent crimes to drug offenses are counted as are people for whom drug offenses are but one of a long list of crimes for which they were convicted.

    The more you look at these statistics the more the supposed biases disappear.

    1. Thank you, Shannon Love.

  11. Shorter Shannon Love:

    “Even though I really have made no attempt to actually prove any of my assertions, I’m just going to assume that the reason more black people go to jail for pot than white people is because all those pot offenders are secretly murderous niggers with clever lawyers who pled down their cases. Everyone knows that for us to be safe, we have to get as many niggers off the streets as possible! Because they’re murderous!”

    OK, actually that’s longer Shannon Love but I think it captures the spirit of his point more accurately than his crappy post.

    1. Here’s an argument with plenty of evidence:


      A 1993 study of the racial impact of federal sentencing guidelines found that the imposition between 1986 and 1990 of stiffer penalties for drug offenders, especially cocaine traffickers, did not result in racially disparate sentences. The amount of the drug sold, the seriousness of the offender’s prior criminal history, whether weapons were involved, and other such valid characteristics of criminals and their crimes accounted for all the observed interracial variations in prison sentences.

      Similarly, a 1991 RAND Corporation study of adult robbery and burglary defendants in 14 large U.S. cities found that a defendant’s race or ethnic group bore almost no relation to conviction rates, sentencing severity, or other key measures. In 1995, federal government statistician Patrick A. Langan analyzed data on 42,500 defendants in the nation’s 75 largest counties and found “no evidence that, in the places where blacks in the United States have most of their contacts with the justice system, that system treats them more harshly than whites.”

      A 1985 study by Langan of black-white differentials in imprisonment rates demonstrated that “even if racism exists, it might explain only a small part of the gap between the 11 percent black representation in the United States adult population and the now nearly 50 percent black representation among persons entering state prisons each year in the United States.” An otherwise typically liberal-leaning 1993 National Academy of Sciences study voiced the same basic conclusion.

      It is often asserted that the 1980s war on drugs resulted in a more racially “disproportionate” prison population. The data tell a different story. In 1980, 46.6 percent of state prisoners and 34.4 percent of federal prisoners were black; by 1990, 48.9 percent of state prisoners and 31.4 percent of federal prisoners were black. In 1988, the median time served in confinement by black violent offenders was 25 months, versus 24 months for their white counterparts. The mean sentence lengths were 116 months for blacks and 110 for whites, while the mean times actually served in confinement were 37 months for blacks, 33 months for whites. These small differences are explained by the fact that black violent crimes are generally more serious than white ones (aggravated rather than simple assaults, weapon-related crimes rather than weaponless ones).

      Indeed, the evidence on the race-neutrality of incarceration decisions is now so compelling that even topflight criminologists who rail against the anti-drug regime, mandatory sentencing laws, three-strikes laws, and other policies with which they disagree are nonetheless careful to contend that racial biases are “built into the law,” are “America’s dirty little secret,” or constitute “malign neglect.” In other words, they do everything but challenge the proposition that blacks and whites who do the same crimes and have similar criminal records are now handled by the system in the same ways.

      In this vein, liberal experts contend that the penalties for crack cocaine possession and sale are excessive compared with powder cocaine penalties. I concur. And liberals are also right that blacks are far more likely than whites to use and sell crack instead of powder cocaine. But they go badly wrong on two key counts. First, they feed the conspiratorial myth that federal anti-crack penalties were born of a white conspiracy led by right-wing Republicans. Go check the Congressional Record: in 1986, when the federal crack law was debated, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) supported it, and some CBC members pressed for even harsher penalties. A few years earlier it was CBC members and other Democrats in Congress who pushed President Reagan, against his considered judgment, to create the Office of National Drug Control Policy (better known as the drug czar’s office). And it was President Clinton who recently refused in no uncertain terms to change the federal penalty structure for drug crimes.

      Second, liberal experts and advocates of drug legalization cloud the facts about who really goes to prison for drug crimes. As I and several other researchers have concluded, society gets little return on its investment in locking up low-level offenders who possess or even traffic in small amounts of drugs and commit no other crimes. But most drug offenders, both those behind bars and those who have served their time, do not fit that description.

      As a recent study funded by the National Institute of Justice and other federal agencies acknowledged, in “an important sense the label ‘drug offender’ is a misnomer.” Few “drug offenders” are in prison for mere possession. In 1991, for example, only 2 percent of the 36,648 persons admitted to federal prisons were in for drug possession. Moreover, as for imprisoned drug traffickers, most have long and diversified criminal records?only their latest and most serious conviction offense is a drug-trafficking offense. Even in the much-maligned federal system, few convicted drug traffickers, whether they handle crack, powder cocaine, or pot, are black college kids or white white-collar types arrested on the interstate by a state trooper who found a small stash under the driver’s seat. The average quantity of drugs involved in federal cocaine trafficking cases is 183 pounds, while the average for marijuana traffickers is 3.5 tons.

    2. The article didn’t say ” in prison for pot” it said “drug offenses” which is entirely different. The number of people doing hard time for actually committing the sole crime of mere possession of pot is vanishingly small. Roughly 80% of all felony convictions are plea bargains from a more serious offense. Most people in prison on paper for possession where actually charged with more serious offenses but pled down.

      We can be certain of this because it is impossible for any humane person to ignore the grim statistics of how poor African-American communities are under siege from their own 16-25 males. Those horrific murder rates don’t occur in a vacuum. No one smokes a joint and goes on killing spree. There is an entire spectrum of crimes between simple pot possession and murder. For each murder, there are hundreds of violent and non-violent crimes that legitimately lead to hard prison time. Murder is just the one indicator that cannot be hidden.

      But by all means, don’t let all the bodies piling up detract from the pleasure your self-rightousness gives you.

  12. See, the point I took from Shannon’s post was:

    Prohibition begets a black market begets violence. So you would expect that a community where there is a black market would also have more violent crime.

    The problem here isn’t black folk, its prohibition.

    1. Agreed, seconded.

  13. Who’s the anonymous pussy who’s been polluting this site with his racist bullshit today?

    (I can call this one racist, right?)


    1. But mine isn’t. The War on Drugs Minorities is exactly as I describe it and the anonymous punk denial of that fact is either delusional or racist.

      But the all powerful Urkobold? is correct about the boy (Tony) who cried racist. Dude, nobody listens after a while.

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