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Published on Wednesday, April 12, 2000 in the St Louis Post-Dispatch
War On Drugs Unfairly Targets African-Americans
by Charles A. Shaw
TWO MILLION and counting. That's how many people are incarcerated in America's prisons and jails according to the Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group that promotes alternatives to confinement. The United States has 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the population behind bars.

Even though crime rates have steadily dropped over the past 20 years, our rate of incarceration has mushroomed. Nonviolent offenders accounted for 77 percent of the growth intake in our state and federal prisons between 1978 and 1996. The primary reason for such increase is the "war on drugs" along with the mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines that more severely punish those involved with crack cocaine.

Since 1998, America's prisons and jails incarcerated more than 1 million nonviolent offenders. About half of these inmates are behind bars for drug offenses that involved possession or low-level dealing. Even though African-Americans are only 13 percent of the general population, half the prison population is African-American.

During the height of the war on drugs, from 1986 to 1991, the number of white drug offenders in state prisons increased by 110 percent. The number of black drug offenders grew by 465 percent. African-Americans account for about 14 percent of the nation's drug users, yet they make up 35 percent of those arrested for drug possession, 55 percent of those convicted for drug possession, and 74 percent of those sentenced to serve time.

The disproportionate burden on African-Americans comes about for several reasons. Crack cocaine, which is more likely to be used by African-Americans, will trigger felony charges for amounts 100 times less than powdered cocaine, which is more likely to be used by whites. Racial profiling has been shown to target African-Americans for police stops and searches. And drug dealing is more likely to be out in the open in poor communities, but behind closed doors in suburbs.

Although overall drug use and crime in general are down, there is little or no evidence that our incarceration policies have had anything to do with it. This fact was pointed out in a comparison by the Justice Policy Institute:

"In order to reasonably conclude that increased incarceration promotes decreased crime, one would need to show that a jurisdiction with a higher growth in its incarceration rates does better from a crime-control standpoint than a jurisdiction with a lower growth in its incarceration rate. . . . However, in the ten-year period from 1980-1991, a period during which the nation's prison population increased the most, 11 of the 17 states that increased their prison population the least experienced decreases in crime. On the other hand, just 7 of the 13 states that increased their prison populations the most experienced decreases in crime: a virtual wash. In a previous study . . . comparing increases in imprisonment with changes in crime in every state in the country . . . found no relationship between increases in imprisonment and reduction in crime."

Many contend that our growth rate of incarceration is money well spent to ensure public safety. Clearly, some people are so violent and incorrigible that prison is the right place for them. However, we are not spending our time and money in figuring out who should be incarcerated. Obviously, some crime has been prevented by imprisoning 2 million people. Yet it has been argued that if you randomly locked up another 2 million Americans that would also reduce crime.

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons as well as the Criminal Justice Institute, it costs about $20,000 a year to imprison one inmate. If you add in facility construction, health care and other contracted services and debt services on prison bonds, the annual cost of imprisonment per inmate is probably closer to $40,000.

States are spending more to build prisons than colleges. Their combined prison and jail budgets for 1.2 million nonviolent prisoners exceeded the entire federal welfare budget for 8.5 million poor people in 1998. We are expending enormous public resources to keep nonviolent offenders locked up. These resources might otherwise be directed toward educational, physical and mental health, and social programs that could reduce the initial need for jails and prisons and also reduce recidivism.

At some point most prisoners will be released. Some 660,000 inmates will be released this year, some 887,000 in 2005 and about 1.2 million in 2010.

Present-day incarceration programs have given up on the idea of rehabilitation or otherwise providing prisoners with skills or hope. The experience often converts them into social misfits who will likely return to crime. These individuals are the initial casualties of the war on drugs in a country that has resorted to imprisonment as its primary crime-fighting tool. The secondary casualties may be found in society at large, including friends, family and children. We have created a monster.

It is time for America to face up to its inequitable drug laws and counter-productive incarceration policies that disproportionately burden African-Americans.

Charles A. Shaw, St. Louis, is a U.S. district judge.

1999 St. Louis Post-Dispatch


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