Published on Thursday, June 8, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
'Prejudice & Punishment':
Blacks Unfairly Targeted In 'War on Drugs'
by Jesse Katz
Charging that the war on drugs has been waged disproportionately
against blacks, Human Rights Watch today will release a report showing
that 482 of every 100,000 African American men are in prison for a drug
crime, compared with just 36 of every 100,000 white men.
The study, titled "Punishment and Prejudice," also found that blacks make up 62% of the nation's imprisoned drug offenders, despite accounting for just 13% of the population. In half a dozen states, the disparity is even greater, with blacks comprising 80% to 90% of all drug convicts behind bars. In every state, they are more likely than white men to be incarcerated for such crimes--from North Dakota, where the odds are double, to Illinois, where the ratio is 57 to 1.
"These racial disparities are a national scandal," said Ken Roth, executive director of the New York-based watchdog organization, which touted the report as the first state-by-state analysis of its kind. "Black and white drug offenders get radically different treatment in the American justice system. This is not only profoundly unfair to blacks, it also corrodes the American ideal of equal justice for all."
The report, funded by billionaire investor George Soros' Open Society Institute, adds to the already bleak statistical portrait of inner-city America, which has served as the drug war's front line. But as with similar studies, its interpretation--and the appropriate target for outrage--is a matter of considerable debate.
Cost of Prison 'Cure' Seen High
To Human Rights Watch associate counsel Jamie Fellner, who authored the report, the numbers paint a "devastating picture of the price black Americans have paid" for the country's failed battle to control illicit drugs. "While drug abuse and drug trafficking warrant concerted national efforts," she wrote, "it may be that the human, social and economic cost of the prison 'cure' is worse than the 'disease' itself."
Conservatives, however, derided those conclusions as "inflammatory," arguing that racially distinct outcomes, in and of themselves, are not evidence of racially biased policies. "There will be inevitably, inherently, disparities of all sorts in the enforcement of any kind of law," said Todd Gaziano, a senior fellow in legal studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "I'm sure you can find disparity among racial groups as to whether their ZIP Codes end in odd or even numbers. It doesn't prove anything."
Because the illegal drug trade tends to flourish in economically depressed communities, conservatives contend, it may be that blacks simply commit more drug crimes than whites--or, at least, the kind of drug crimes that are more likely to result in a prison term. If that is the case, they say, then inner-city black neighborhoods are the ones that most benefit from putting drug offenders behind bars.
"Why on Earth are people who claim to be civil rights advocates defending the predators in these communities?" asked David Horowitz, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for the Study of Popular Culture and the author of "Hating Whitey and Other Progressive Causes."
The answer from Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) is that a black teenager standing on a corner with a baggie of crack should be viewed as a scapegoat, not a villain. He provides a convenient target for law enforcement, "but a 19-year-old, low-level drug dealer in South-Central L.A. is not responsible for the devastation of the community."
Rather, Waters believes outrage--and prison time--should be reserved for those who allow international traffickers to move their drugs and money in and out of the U.S. As an example, Waters pointed to a recent Senate investigation that rebuked Citibank for helping the brother of former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari transfer tens of millions of dollars in alleged drug profits out of his country, a case that resulted in no charges of wrongdoing against the banking conglomerate.
"Blacks get treated differently," she said.
Situation for Blacks Called Catastrophic
The numbers contained in the Human Rights Watch report, regardless of politics, describe a catastrophic situation for black America. Relying on 1996 prison admission data from the National Corrections Reporting Program, the study for the first time calculated per capita incarceration rates for drug offenders in the 37 states that participated.
Illinois topped the list, with 1,146 of every 100,000 black men (compared with just 20 of every 100,000 white men) in prison for a drug offense. Ohio followed, with a rate of 968, then Kentucky, at 869. The report compared those numbers with the rates for white men and ranked the states according to the degree of racial disparity. Illinois again led, with blacks 57 times more likely than whites to be incarcerated for drug crimes. Wisconsin followed, with a 54-to-1 ratio, then Minnesota, at 39 to 1.
California's per capita rate for black drug offenders--669 of every 100,000--was the nation's seventh highest. But because California's total black population is smaller than that of many Southern and Northeastern states, the disparity with whites was among the lowest; even so, African American drug offenders here are five times more likely than whites to land in prison.
The report offered no explanation for any state's ranking, and few states were volunteering an opinion. "I'm reluctant to draw any conclusions based on a report that's a mystery to me," said a spokesman for Illinois Gov. George Ryan.
Human Rights Watch, whose stated goal is to make governments around the world "pay a heavy price in reputation and legitimacy if they violate the rights of their people," concludes with several policy recommendations:
* Repeal mandatory minimum sentences;
* Increase the availability of drug treatment;
* Eliminate racial profiling.
"If this were happening to whites," Fellner said, "the policies would change."
States in which blacks comprise the highest percentage of imprisoned drug offenders:
1. Maryland: 90%
2. Illinois: 90%
3. South Carolina: 86%
4. North Carolina: 84%
5. Louisiana: 82%
U.S. average: 62%
1. Illinois: 57:1
2. Wisconsin: 54:1
3. Minnesota: 39:1
4. Maine: 36:1
5. Iowa: 29:1
U.S. average: 13:1