x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Concern over drug convictions for blacks

Figures reveal African-American arrest rates for narcotics offences have been vastly higher than those of whites for the past 30 years.

Officers stand watch over a crowd of inmates at the Metropolitan Transition Center in east Baltimore. Monica Lopossay,
Officers stand watch over a crowd of inmates at the Metropolitan Transition Center in east Baltimore. Monica Lopossay,

NEW YORK // African-Americans have been arrested on drug charges at rates up to five-and-a-half times higher than whites for nearly three decades, even though both races commit offences at comparable rates, according to a report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch. About one in three of almost 25.5 million adults arrested on drugs charges between 1980 and 2007 was African-American, prompting the activist group to compare the "war on drugs" to the Jim Crow laws, the term used to describe state and local laws that mandated segregation of the races until the mid-1960s. "Jim Crow may be dead, but the drug war has never been colour-blind," said Jamie Fellner, the senior counsel with the group's US programme and author of the report, Decades of Disparity: Drug Arrests and Race in the United States. He added: "Although whites and blacks use and sell drugs, the heavy hand of the law is more likely to fall on black shoulders." The report used data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation that showed most drug arrests were for drug possession, greatly exceeding those for drug sales, and accounted for 80 per cent or more of annual arrests since 1999. Relatively few arrests involved drug importers, manufacturers, major dealers or even small dealers, the report said. "Hauling hundreds of thousands of people down to the station house each year because they have some weed or a rock of crack cocaine in their pocket has had little impact on drug use," Mr Fellner said. "But the stigma of a drug arrest, especially if followed by a conviction, limits employment, education and housing opportunities. "A more effective, less destructive drug policy would prioritise treatment, education and positive social investments in poor communities over arrest and incarceration." A breakdown, by state, of the data showed a startling picture, with blacks being arrested for drug offences at often much higher rates than whites. The highest ratio of 11.3-1 was in Iowa and Minnesota; the lowest were 2-1 in Hawaii and 2.5-1 in Mississippi. Data for Florida and the District of Columbia were not available. The report explained that because African-Americans were more likely to be arrested than whites on drug charges, they were also more likely to get the convictions that eventually lead to higher rates of incarceration. Although blacks represent about one-third of drug arrests, they constitute 46 per cent of people convicted of drug felonies in state courts. A Human Rights Watch analysis of prison admissions data for 2003 showed that relative to population, blacks were more than 10 times more likely than whites to be sent to prison for drug offences. Incarceration rates in the United States have risen during the past three decades to 2.3 million people, the highest in the world, prompting deep concern among civil rights campaigners who hope the administration of Barack Obama will do more to push reform. In addition to the number of people behind bars, a further five million are under supervision, including parole, probation or house arrest. The increase in prison costs was six times bigger than for spending on higher education, according to the Pew Centre's Public Safety Performance Project. US laws are also much tougher against crack cocaine compared with powder cocaine, even though researchers have found their pharmacological effects to be similar. African-Americans are much more likely to be arrested for crack cocaine possession than middle-class whites for powder cocaine possession. In New York, David Paterson, the governor, used his state of the state speech in January to call for an overhaul of so-called Rockefeller laws, sometimes called the grandfather of mandatory sentencing because in 1973 they introduced automatic, lengthy prison sentences even for first-time drug offenders. Human Rights Watch called for more emphasis on substance abuse treatment and less on law enforcement as well as a review of drug sentencing laws to increase community-based sanctions. The group also urged an assessment of how much police were influenced by race when it came to checking pedestrians and vehicles and making arrests. sdevi@thenational.ae