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US: ‘Drug War’ Unjust to African Americans

Two National Reports Detail Racial Disparity in Arrests and Imprisonment

(Washington, DC, May 5, 2008) – Ostensibly color-blind, the US “war on drugs” disproportionately targets urban minority neighborhoods, Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project said in two reports released today. Although whites commit more drug offenses, African Americans are arrested and imprisoned on drug charges at much higher rates, the reports find.

" Most drug offenders are white, but most of the drug offenders sent to prison are black. The solution is not to imprison more whites but to radically rethink how to deal with drug abuse and low-level drug offenders. "
Jamie Fellner, senior counsel, US Program
  
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In the 67-page report, “Targeting Blacks: Drug Law Enforcement and Race in the United States,” Human Rights Watch documents with detailed new statistics persistent racial disparities among drug offenders sent to prison in 34 states. All of these states send black drug offenders to prison at much higher rates than whites.  
 
“Most drug offenders are white, but most of the drug offenders sent to prison are black,” said Jamie Fellner, senior counsel in the US program at Human Rights Watch and author of “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.”  
 
Key findings in the Human Rights Watch report include:
  • Across the 34 states, a black man is 11.8 times more likely than a white man to be sent to prison on drug charges, and a black woman is 4.8 times more likely than a white woman.
  • In 16 states, African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at rates between 10 and 42 times greater than the rate for whites. The 10 states with the greatest racial disparities in prison admissions for drug offenders are: Wisconsin, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, West Virginia, Colorado, New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.
The Sentencing Project’s 45-page study, "Disparity by Geography: The War on Drugs in America’s Cities," is the first city-level analysis of drug arrests, examining data from 43 of the nation’s largest cities between 1980 and 2003. The study found that, since 1980, the rate of drug arrests in American cities for African Americans increased by 225 percent, compared to 70 percent among whites. Black arrest rates grew by more than 500 percent in 11 cities during this period; and, in nearly half of the cities, the odds of arrest for a drug offense among African Americans relative to whites more than doubled.  
 
“The alarming increase in drug arrests since 1980, concentrated among African Americans, raises fundamental questions about fairness and justice,” said Ryan S. King, policy analyst for The Sentencing Project and author of “Disparity by Geography.” “But even more troubling is the fact that these trends come not as the result of higher rates of drug use among African Americans, but, instead, the decisions by local officials about where to pursue drug enforcement.”  
 
Among The Sentencing Project report’s key findings:
  • African-American drug arrests increased at 3.4 times the rate of whites despite similar rates of drug use.
  • Extreme city variations in drug arrests point to local enforcement decisions as a prime contributor to racial disparity.
  • Six cities experienced more than a 500-percent rise in overall drug arrests between 1980 and 2003: Tucson (887 percent), Buffalo (809 percent), Kansas City (736 percent), Toledo (701 percent), Newark (663 percent), and Sacramento (597 percent).
The Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch urge public officials to restore fairness, racial justice, and credibility to drug-control efforts. They recommend public officials take a number of concrete steps, including:
  • Eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and restoring judicial discretion to sentencing of drug offenders;
  • Increasing public funding of substance abuse treatment and prevention outreach to make these readily available in communities of color in particular;
  • Enhancing public health-based strategies to reduce harms associated with drug abuse and reallocating public resources accordingly.
Today’s reports follow in the wake of the March 2008 recommendations of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The committee urged that US criminal justice policies and practices address the unwarranted racial disparities that have been documented at all levels of the system.
 

 
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