I. Introduction

What the drugs themselves have not destroyed, the warfare against them has. And what once began, perhaps, as a battle against dangerous substances long ago transformed itself into a venal war on our underclass. Since declaring war on drugs … we’ve been demonizing our most desperate citizens, isolating and incarcerating them and otherwise denying them a role in the American collective. All to no purpose. The prison population doubles and doubles again; the drugs remain.

—Ed Burns, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Richard Price, and David Simon, creators of the HBO television series The Wire, in an op-ed written for Time Magazine, March 5, 20081

Long before launching the global “war on terror,” the United States launched what it called the “war on drugs,” a law enforcement and crime control effort targeting its own people. Ostensibly color-blind, the US drug war has been and continues to be waged overwhelmingly against black Americans. Although white Americans constitute the large majority of drug offenders, African American communities continue as the principal “fronts” in this unjust effort. Defenders of the current anti-drug efforts claim they want to protect poor minority communities from addiction as well as the disorder, nuisance, and violence that can accompany drug dealing. But the choice of imprisonment as the primary anti-drug strategy, and the effect of this policy on neighborhoods, evokes the infamous phrase from the Vietnam War, “it became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.”2

Targeting Blacks updates our prior report documenting racial disparities among drug offenders sent to prison. 3 It reveals that drug law enforcement in the United States continues to produce extraordinarily high and disproportionate rates of black incarceration, particularly for black men. Based on data on new prison admissions reported by 34 states to the National Corrections Reporting Program for 2003 (the most recent available),4 our analysis reveals that:

  • African Americans constituted 53.5 percent of all persons who entered prison5 because of a drug conviction;6
  • Blacks were 10.1 times more likely than whites to enter prison for drug offenses;
  • A black man was 11.8 times more likely than a white man to enter prison for drug offenses;
  • A black woman was 4.8 times more likely than a white woman to enter prison for drug offenses;
  • Among all African Americans entering prison, almost two out of five (38.2 percent) were convicted of drug offenses, compared to one in four whites (25.4 percent); and
  • Although still dramatic, the racial disparity in the ratio of black to white prison admission rates for drug offenses in 2003 was in most states less than in 1996. Nevertheless, because of the increase in the disparity in states with large populations such as New York and California, the racial disparity across the 34 states was higher in 2003 than it was in 1996. In 2003, the black prison admission rate for drug offenses was 10. 1 times that of whites. In 1996, it was 9.9 times greater.

The 59,535 adult African Americans who entered prison with drug convictions in 2003 in the 34 reporting states form just part of the unknown numbers of African Americans who have been incarcerated over the past two-and-a-half decades at rates greatly disproportionate to whites.7 Since the mid-1980s, the nation’s drug problem has been perceived to be primarily an urban black problem, even though—as discussed below—available data suggests there may be six times as many white drug offenders as black. The racially disproportionate results presented in this report are as predictable as they are unjust.8

It is impossible to determine whether and if so to what extent conscious racial hostility has influenced US drug control strategies. But even absent overt racial animus, race has mattered, influencing the development and persistence of anti-drug strategies. The emphasis on penal sanctions, for example, cannot be divorced from widespread and deeply rooted public association of racial minorities with crime and drugs.9 The choice of crack cocaine as an ongoing priority for law enforcement—instead of the far more prevalent powder cocaine10—cannot be divorced from public association of crack with African Americans, even though the majority of crack users were white.11 In short, unconscious and conscious racial stereotypes have affected public perceptions of drugs, crime, disorder, and danger, and helped shape political and policy responses. Drug policy could have focused on a public health approach and sought to reduce demand. Instead, a penal approach has been pursued that focused on the suppliers, and, in particular, suppliers in minority neighborhoods.

The harms to those neighborhoods—as well as to the individuals sent to prison—are serious and long-lasting. Criminologist Michael Tonry has pointed out that unless and until drug control policies are less destructive, the life prospects for many disadvantaged blacks will remain bleak.12 His recent summary of the problems with Minnesota’s drug policies applies with equal force nationally:

Current Minnesota drug policies damage minority communities and help assure that many minority group members remain locked in multi-generational cycles of disadvantage and social exclusion. If Minnesota is ever to offer equal opportunities and life chances to all its citizens, it will have to radically rethink and revise its responses to drug use and abuse. Current policies cause much more harm than they prevent, and require tens of millions of dollars of annual expenditures on law enforcement and corrections that could be much more constructively committed to improving people’s lives.13

We hope this report will encourage US political leaders and the public to grapple forthrightly with the excessive and racially disproportionate incarceration of drug offenders, and to develop plans to eliminate it. The first step is to reassess existing approaches to drug abuse and to evaluate the costs and benefits of feasible, cost-effective, and more equitable alternatives. Such alternatives exist, and some states have begun to take steps in the right direction—establishing drug courts to divert drug offenders from prison into community-based treatment programs, modifying their sentencing laws, and commissioning studies of racial disparities in their criminal justice systems.14 As the data presented in this report demonstrates, however, much remains to be done.

1 Ed Burns et al., “The Wire’s War on the Drug War,” Time Magazine, Wednesday, March 5, 2008,,8599,1719872,00.html (accessed March 12, 2008).

2 Attributed to an unnamed US military officer by Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett, February 7, 1968.

3 Human Rights Watch, United States – Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs, vol. 12, no. 2(A), May 2000, Punishment and Prejudice was based on state prison admissions data from 1996. We focus in this present report only on the racial implications of the so-called war on drugs.

4 The prison admissions data presented in this report is drawn from information reported by 34 individual states to the federal National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP) for the year 2003, the last for which data were available. Although Alaska reported to the NCRP that year, we have excluded it from our analysis because there were many blanks in its data and it did not report any new admissions to prison for drug convictions. We have limited our analysis to the two racial categories, black and white, and did not include breakdowns by ethnicity (for example, Hispanic vs. non-Hispanic) because of the large number of missing data for ethnicity in the data reported by the states. The “white” and “black” categories each include Hispanic individuals. See Chapter IX: Methodology, for a complete description of the data and our methods of analysis.

5 In this report we use the terms “entered prison,” “admitted to prison,” “prison admissions,” and “new court commitments” interchangeably. They are used to refer to people who were sent to prison by the courts because of convictions on new charges. See Chapter IX: Methodology.

6 A person can be sentenced to prison with convictions for multiple offenses. In this report, when we refer to drug offenders, people convicted of drug offenses, drug admissions, and the like, we refer only to people whose most serious conviction crime was a drug offense. If, for example, a person was convicted of murder or armed robbery as well as selling drugs, he would not be included in our data as a drug offender.

7 There are no official data on the number of African Americans or whites who have been incarcerated on drug charges during the “war on drugs.” Between 1974 and 2001, an estimated 2,166,000 blacks were incarcerated on all charges in state and federal prisons. Thomas P. Bonczar, Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), “Prevalence of Imprisonment in the U.S. Population 1974-2001,” August 2003, p. 1, (accessed April 16, 2008).

8  Many organizations have documented the racial disparities in US anti-drug efforts. See, for example, the websites of The Sentencing Project, (accessed April 16, 2008), and the Justice Policy Institute, (accessed April 16, 2008).

9 Michael Tonry, Malign Neglect - Race, Crime and Punishment in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); David Cole, No Equal Justice (New York: the New Press, 1999); David Musto, The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973); Katherine Beckett, Kris Nyrop, and Lori Pfingst, “Race, Drugs, and Policing: Understanding Disparities in Drug Delivery Arrests,” Criminology, vol. 44, no. 1 (2006), (accessed April 16, 2008).

10 Despite its notoriety, crack has never been one of the most heavily used drugs in the United States. For example, of the estimated 111,774,000 people age 12 and older who have used an illicit drug at least once in their lifetime, 8,554,000 are estimated to have used crack cocaine. In contrast, an estimated 35,298,000 persons have used powder cocaine, and 20,118,000 have used stimulants. US Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “Results from the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings,” 2007, Appendix G: Selected Prevalence Tables, Table G.1, (accessed April 16, 2008). SAMHSA’s prevalence estimates are based on a survey of representative households and non-institutional group quarters nationwide.

11 In 1995, the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) noted, “Public opinion tends to associate the country's drug crisis, specifically its perceived ‘crack problem,’ with Black, inner-city neighborhoods. [SAMHSA’s National Household Survey on Drug Abuse] found that cocaine in any form was used by 2.8 percent of Whites, 3.9 percent of Blacks, and 3.8 percent of Hispanics in the survey population during the 1991 reporting year. Because Blacks and Hispanics comprise significantly smaller percentages of the total population, the majority of those reporting cocaine use were white.” USSC, “Special Report to Congress: Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy,” February 1995, p. 34, (accessed April 16, 2008). According to the 2006 national household survey of drug use and health conducted by SAMHSA, 3.3 percent of surveyed whites and 5.3 percent of surveyed blacks age 12 and older reported having used crack cocaine at least once in their lifetime. SAMHSA, “Results from the 2006 National Survey,” Table 1.34A, (accessed April 16, 2008). Given the disparity in the size of the respective populations in the United States, these percentages translate into a striking difference in the absolute numbers of each racial group estimated to have used crack: 5,553,800 whites and 1,537,000 blacks. The spread of crack cocaine—much cheaper than powder—in black neighborhoods, coupled with violence by drug gangs seeking to establish control over the crack market, prompted extraordinary levels of political and press attention to crack’s use by African Americans. The USSC has published succinct summaries of what is known about comparative risks and dangers of crack versus powder cocaine, and has repeatedly concluded there is no justification for the far higher sentences for crack offenders. Among its findings were that the two drugs are pharmacologically identical, with their effects depending primarily on method of ingestion, and that many of the fears about crack—for example, crack babies—have proved groundless. In addition, the  violence that accompanied the establishment of distribution networks for crack cocaine when it was first introduced has greatly diminished.

12 See, for example, Tonry, Malign Neglect.

13 Michael Tonry, “Minnesota Drug Policy and its Disastrous Effects on Racial and Ethnic Minorities,” in the appendices of Council on Crime and Justice, “Justice, Where Art Thou: A Framework for the Future,” October 2007, p. 62, (accessed April 16, 2008). Tonry has written extensively about drug policies and their consequences.

14 See, for example, Governor’s Commission on Reducing Racial Disparities in the Wisconsin Justice System, “Final Report,” February 2008, (accessed April 16, 2008); Justice Policy Institute, “Substance Abuse Treatment and Public Safety,” January 2008, (accessed April 16, 2008); Ryan S. King, The Sentencing Project, “The State of Sentencing 2007,” January 2008, (accessed April 16, 2008); Marc Mauer and Ryan S. King, The Sentencing Project, “A 25-Year Quagmire: the War on Drugs and its Impact on American Society,” September 2007, (accessed April 16, 2008).