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Groundbreaking Study Examines Drug Imprisonment in 198 Counties; 97 Percent Experienced Racial Disparities

For Immediate Release: December 4, 2007
Contact: LaWanda Johnson (202) 558-7974 ext. 308

Groundbreaking Study Examines Drug Imprisonment in 198 Counties

97 Percent Experienced Racial Disparities

WASHINGTON—A new report released today by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) finds that 97 percent of the nation’s large-population counties imprisoned African Americans at a higher rate than whites. The report documents racial disparities in the use of prison for drug offenses in 193 of the 198 counties that reported to government entities.

The Vortex: The Concentrated Racial Impact of Drug Imprisonment and the Characteristics of Punitive Counties,” found that counties with higher poverty rates, larger African-American populations and larger police or judicial budgets imprison people for drug offenses at higher rates than counties without these characteristics. These relationships were found to be independent of whether the county actually had a higher rate of crime. (The findings for the 198 counties.)

“The Vortex” is the first study to examine the relationships between these sociodemographic structures and the specific annual rate at which people are admitted to prison for drug offenses, and the first to localize the racially disparate impact of drug imprisonment at the county level.

“The exponential removal of people of color who have substance abuse problems from their communities and into prisons undermines and destabilizes neighborhoods-- it does not make them safer,” says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Drug addiction doesn’t discriminate but our drug policies do.”

The report is being released just days before the Drug Policy Alliance hosts its 2007 International Drug Policy Reform Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Major findings include:
  • While tens of millions of people use illicit drugs, prison and policing responses to drug behavior have a concentrated impact on a subset of the population. In 2002, there were 19.5 million illicit drug users, 1.5 million drug arrests, and 175,000 people admitted to prison for a drug offense.
  • While African Americans and whites use and sell drugs at similar rates, African Americans are ten times more likely than whites to be imprisoned for drug offenses.
  • Of the 175,000 admitted to prison nationwide in 2002, over half were African American, despite the fact that African Americans make up less than 13 percent of the U.S. population.
  • There is no relationship between the rates at which people are sent to prison for drug offenses and the rates at which people use drugs in counties. For example, although Rockingham County, NH, has a larger percent of its population reporting illicit drug use, Jefferson Parish, LA, sent more people to prison for a drug offense at a rate 36 times that of Rockingham.

Higher county drug prison admission rates were associated with how much was spent on policing and the judicial system, higher poverty and unemployment rates, and the proportion of the county’s population that is African American.

Researchers attributed disparate policing practices, disparate treatment before the courts, mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws, and differences in the availability of drug treatment for African Americans compared with whites as reasons for the significant racial disparities seen in drug imprisonment rates.

“Laws—like drug laws—that are violated by a large percentage of the population are particularly prone to selective enforcement,” says Phillip Beatty, co-author of the study. “The reason African Americans are so disproportionately impacted may, in part, be related to social policy, the amount spent on law enforcement and judiciary systems, and local drug enforcement practices.”

While the report does not make detailed recommendations for counties, the authors suggest that policymakers consider reforming drug policies to include:

  • De-escalation of the “drug war.” Drug enforcement practices are focused in the African-American community, despite evidence that they are no more likely than their white counterparts to be engaged in drug use or drug delivery behaviors. Local, state and federal policymakers should closely examine racial disparities in local drug imprisonment rates that result from these practices, and consider alternative approaches to reducing drug use and sales
  • Careful consideration of public safety funding. While policing and judicial expenditures need to be prioritized to help deal with violent crime, other ways to promote public safety would include investments in public health policies and services that reduce poverty and unemployment
  • A shift to evidence-based drug enforcement practices. Reform drug enforcement practices, and collect data to analyze the fairness of local drug enforcement tactics and policies.

“Rather than focus law enforcement efforts on drug-involved people who bear little threat to public safety, we should free up local resources to fund treatment, job training, supportive housing, and other effective public safety strategies,” says Jason Ziedenberg, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. 

For more information, contact LaWanda Johnson at (202)558-7974 ext. 308 or ljohnson@justicepolicy.org.

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