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The Changing Racial Dynamics of the War on Drugs

April 01, 2009
There has been a significant shift in the racial composition of people incarcerated for a drug offense in recent years. Our analysis documents that the number of African Americans in state prisons for a drug offense declined by 21.6% from 1999 to 2005, while the number of whites incarcerated for a drug offense rose by 42.6% during this period.

For more than a quarter century, the “war on drugs” has exerted a profound impact on the structure and scale of the criminal justice system. The inception of the “war” in the 1980s has been a major contributing factor to the historic rise in the prison population during this period.

From a figure of about 40,000 people incarcerated in prison or jail for a drug offense in 1980, there has since been an 1100% increase to a total of 500,000 today. To place some perspective on that change, the number of people incarcerated for a drug offense is now greater than the number incarcerated for all offenses in 1980.

The dramatic escalation of incarceration for drug offenses has been accompanied by profound racial/ethnic disparities. Overall, two-thirds of persons incarcerated for a drug offense in state prison are African American or Latino. These figures are far out of proportion to the degree that these groups use or sell drugs. A wealth of research demonstrates that much of this disparity is fueled by disparate law enforcement practices. In effect, police agencies have frequently targeted drug law violations in low-income communities of color for enforcement operations, while substance abuse in communities with substantial resources is more likely to be addressed as a family or public health problem.

In recent years, there is emerging evidence of potentially significant change in the approach and effects of national drug policy. First, there is increasing public and policymaker recognition of the value of drug treatment as a more appropriate response to substance abuse than incarceration in many instances. In this regard, we can trace the rapid expansion of drug courts. From the inception of the first treatment-oriented courts in 1989, these programs have now grown to more than 1,600 nationally. There is ongoing debate regarding the extent to which these approaches divert defendants from incarceration, but in any case they represent broad support for less punitive policies in regard to substance abuse.

This stability in the number of drug offense incarcerations is intriguing, but hides an even more dramatic change – a significant shift in the racial composition of people incarcerated for a drug offense. Our analysis documents these striking trends:

  • The number of African Americans in state prisons for a drug offense declined by 21.6% from 1999-2005, a reduction of more than 31,000 persons.
  • The number of whites incarcerated for a drug offense rose significantly during this period, an increase of 42.6%, representing an additional 21,000 persons in prison.

This report examines these shifting dynamics in the context of the criminal justice system to explore possible explanations for these changes. We then assess the implications of these changes for both substance abuse policy and considerations of racial justice.

To read the report, download the PDF below.

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