Marking the 35th anniversary of New York’s controversial Rockefeller drug laws, the tough mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenders, three new reports were issued by the Human Rights Watch (HRW), The Sentencing Project (TSP) and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) that highlight the alarming racial disparities that exist in drug-related arrest and imprisonment.
Over the past decade, New York City alone has arrested more people of color for possessing small amounts of marijuana (less than two ounces) than any city in the United States, researchers found.
Nowhere in American life are racial disparities more pervasive than those in the criminal justice system where Blacks, nationally, are incarcerated at a rate seven times higher, usually on drug offenses, than their White counterparts, according to national data.
Under the Rockefeller drug laws passed in 1973, an offender found guilty of selling two or more ounces of heroin, crack-cocaine, or marijuana was sentenced to a minimum of 15 years to life or a maximum of 25 years to life in prison.
“It’s hard to know how much of the disparity [in arrests] is explicable by discrimination,” says Ryan S. King, policy analyst for The Sentencing Project and author of the report, Disparity by Geography: The War on Drugs in America’s Cities. “However, it would be naïve not to think that some portion of it is race.”
King insists that the role race plays in institutional incentives is more telling. During the 1980s, the federal government pumped billions of dollars into states and localities that garnered high drug arrests. If law enforcement wanted to tap into federal funds, they focused their resources on drug arrests often at the expense of other crimes.
“Most drug offenders are White, but most of the drug offenders sent to prison are Black,” says Jamie Fellner, senior counsel in the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch and author of the report, Targeting Blacks. “The solution is not to imprison more Whites but to radically rethink how to deal with drug abuse and low-level drug offenders.”
Across 34 states, a Black man is nearly 12 times more likely than a White man to be sent to prison on drug charges, according to a report from the Human Rights Watch, an international human rights advocacy group. And in the nation’s largest cities, drug arrests for Blacks rose at three times the rate for Whites from 1980 to 2003, TSP reports.
From 1997 to 2007, the New York Police Department (NYPD) arrested and jailed nearly 400,000 people for possession of marijuana, more than half were Black. Hispanics comprised roughly 31 percent with 59,000 arrests, while Whites constituted a mere 15 percent with only 58,000 arrests despite comprising 35 percent of the population, according to the NYCLU study conducted by Dr. Harry Levine, a sociology professor at Queens College in New York.
In his report, “Marijuana Arrests Crusade in New York City,” Levine, like Fellner, asserts that White youth, ages 18 to 25, use marijuana more often than young Blacks and Hispanics, yet are less likely to be arrested or charged for possession of a small amount. He says Blacks and Hispanics are getting arrested with greater frequency because they are searched and followed more often than Whites.
The racial disparity in the stop-and-frisk encounters is almost identical to the marijuana arrest disparity. In 2007, the NYPD stopped nearly 469,000 New Yorkers. More than half of those stopped were Blacks, followed by Hispanics at 29 percent and Whites at 10 percent, Levine reports. Eighty-eight percent were found completely innocent of any wrongdoing.
Since the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration launched the “War on Drugs,” arrests for drug offenses, in general, have more than tripled, HRW reports. Between 1990 and 2000, drug offenses accounted for 27 percent of the total increase in Black inmates in state prison and only 15 percent of the increase in White inmates.
Interestingly, there’s no national data that would suggest that Black rates of drug use or selling rose dramatically more than that of Whites from 1980-2003, says Ryan S. King. In fact, data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the Department of Health and Human Services documents that Blacks use drugs at a rate proportional to their share of the general population, he says.
“The alarming increase in drug arrests since 1980, concentrated among African-Americans, raises fundamental questions about fairness and justice,” King says.
Other key findings from the TSP report:
• Black arrest rates increased by more than 500 percent in 11 cities.
• Tucson, Ariz., led the nation in the increase of Black drug arrest rates between 1980 and 2003.
• Black arrest rates grew by 1184 percent, nearly three times the growth in White drug arrest rates.
• In Milwaukee Black rates were about 15 percent lower than White rates in 1980,
but then rose by 206 percent by 2003, while White rates declined by almost two-thirds.
• White arrest rates in Virginia Beach, Va., were more than 2.5 times the rate for
Blacks in 1980, but then declined by 24 percent by 2003; while Black arrest rates increased
by 729 percent from 1980 to 2003.
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