The impact of incarceration as a weapon in the war against drugs has fallen disproportionately on black Americans. Blacks are overrepresented in U.S. prisons relative to their proportion of the population and, as discussed below, relative to their rates of drug offending. Whites, conversely, are significantly underrepresented. Fifty-six percent of drug offenders in state prison nationwide are black.70 Blacks are incarcerated on drug charges at dramatically higher rates than whites and drug offenses also account for a much greater proportion of blacks sent to prison than they do for whites.
Racial Disparities in Drug Offender Admissions to Prison
Blacks constituted 62.6 percent of all drug offenders admitted to state prisons in 1996, whereas whites constituted 36.7 percent.71 In certain states, the racial disproportion among drug admissions are far worse (Figure 7). In Maryland and Illinois, blacks constituted an astonishing 90 percent of all drug admissions. In one third of the states reporting to the NCRP, blacks comprise more than 75 percent of all drug admissions. In all the states, the proportion of drug offenders admitted to state prison greatly exceeds the proportions of the state population that is black (Table 13).
The disproportionately high percentage of blacks among those admitted to state prison on drug charges is cause for alarm. But the disparity in the rates at which black and white men over the age of eighteen are sent to prison on drug charges is nothing short of a national scandal. The drug offender admissions rate for black men ranges from 60 to a breathtaking 1,146 per 100,000 black men (Figure 8). The white rate, in contrast, begins at 6 and rises no higher than 139 per 100,000 white men.
Nationwide, the rate of drug admissions to state prison for black men is thirteen times greater than the rate for white men (Table 14). In ten states black men are sent to state prison on drug charges at rates that are 26 to 57 times greater than those of white men in the same state. In Illinois, for example, the state with the highest rate of black male drug offender admissions to prison, a black man is 57 times more likely to be sent to prison on drug charges than a white man.
Drug Offenders as a Proportion of Total Black Admissions
The high and disproportionate number of blacks who are sent to prison should be a cause for national concern regardless of the crime for which they are convicted. What may be most troubling about black incarceration, however, is that it is propelled by nonviolent drug offenses. In other words, but for the war on drugs, the extent of black incarceration would be significantly lower.
Drug offenses accounted for nearly two out of five (38 percent) of all black admissions (Table 15). The proportion of sentenced drug offenders among all black offenders sent to state prison ranged among states between a high of 61 percent in New Hampshire and a low of 16 percent in Oregon, with a majority of the states falling in the range of 30 and 40 percent. In contrast, drug offenders constituted 24 percent of all whites sent to state prison nationwide and in more than half of the states that submitted data to the NCRP.
More blacks were sent to state prison nationwide on drug charges than for crimes of violence (Table 16). Only 27 percent of black admissions to prison were for crimes of violence -- compared to 38 percent for drug offenses. If all nonviolent offenses (property, drugs, public order, etc) are combined, 73 percent of all blacks sent toprison were sentenced for nonviolent crimes. Seventy-three percent of whites admitted to prison were also sentenced for nonviolent offenses.70 BJS, "Prisoners in 1998."
71 The specific reasons for the discrepancy between the black proportion of felony drug convictions and of drug admissions have not been analyzed. They may include such factors as the type of drug offense, the type of drug, and the presence of prior record. For example, blacks comprised 56 percent of persons convicted of trafficking felonies while whites comprised 43 percent. BJS, "Felony Sentences in State Courts," (May 1999), Table 5.