The racial disparities in incarceration generated by drug control strategies raise deeply troubling questions. Why are white drug users and sellers comparatively free of arrest and incarceration for their illegal activity? Why has the United States continued to address illicit drugs primarily with a punitive criminal justice approach, including harsh prison sentences? Why has the country been willing to impose the burden of incarceration for drug offenses primarily on those who by virtue of race and poverty are already among the most marginalized in society and the most politically powerless?123
We cannot answer those questions. But we do know that the racial disparities we have documented in this report violate fundamental principles of justice and equal protection of the law. They undermine faith among all races and ethnic groups in the fairness and efficacy of the US criminal justice system.124 They are particularly intolerable because incarceration has such grave implications for the offenders lives and those of their families and communities.
It is difficult to overstate the harshness of a prison sentence and its enduring consequences. Prisons are tense, overcrowded, dangerous, and barren places in which it may be difficult to maintain ones emotional equilibrium and self-respect, much less turn a life around. Prison education, vocational, and substance abuse programs are minimal. Incarceration leaves families without breadwinners,125 children without parents.126 Even after release from prison, the consequences of incarceration continue, reflected in wrecked families, troubled children, diminished opportunities for jobs and economic advancement, problems finding housing, and political disenfranchisement.127 Spending time in prison may increase the likelihood of recidivism.128 High rates of incarceration in particular communities may deplete the human and social capital of already disadvantaged neighborhoods, diminishing opportunities for social and economic mobility and even contributing to ongoing cycles of crime.129
The United States can and must devise ways to make its drug control policies less destructive to black communities in general, and black males in particular. There is no justification for levying the burdens of incarceration and its aftermath disproportionately on black drug offenders. The statistics presented in this report reflect the persistent failure of the United States to ensure that its efforts to reduce illicit drug use and sales are conducted within a framework of respect for human rights.
123 People in the criminal justice system are not a political constituency to which politicians pay heed. Moreover, criminal justice involvement can lead to temporaryand in some places, permanentpolitical disenfranchisement. Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project, Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States, 1998, http://www.hrw.org/reports98/vote/. See also the website of The Sentencing Project for subsequent reports and news about the campaign to restore the right to vote to former felons, http://www.sentencingproject.org/IssueAreaHome.aspx?IssueID=4 (accessed April 16, 2008).
124 Human Rights Watch, Punishment and Prejudice, p.5. Minnesotas Council on Crime and Justice recently concluded that the disparity between how different races have been treated in the war on drugs undermines the integrity of the criminal justice system, causing people to lose confidence that the system is even-handed and works equally for the benefit of all citizens. Council on Crime and Justice, Justice, Where Art Thou, p. 16.
125 Contrary to a common misperception, most drug offenders were employed and earning a wage prior to their incarceration. King and Mauer, Distorted Priorities, p. 10.
126 Christopher J. Mumola, BJS, Incarcerated Parents and Their Children, August 2000, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/iptc.pdf (accessed April 16, 2008); and Human Rights Watch, Collateral Casualties: Children of Incarcerated Drug Offenders in New York, vol. 14, no. 3, June 2002, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2002/usany/.
127 Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project, Losing the Vote.
128 Cassia Spohn and David Holleran, The Effect of Imprisonment on Recidivism Rates of Felony Offenders: A Focus on Drug Offenders, Criminology, vol. 40 (2002), pp. 329-357 (drug offenders sentenced to probation have lower recidivism rates and reoffend more slowly than those sentenced to prison).
129 Dina R. Rose and Todd R. Clear, Incarceration, Social Capital and Crime: Implications for Social Disorganization Theory, Criminology, vol. 36 (1998), pp. 441-479.