Xian pointed out an interesting article on racial disparities in drug enforcement that I had overlooked from last week's Chicago Tribune (available here).
The War on Drugs has dramatically increased our prison populations but it has not done so equally across racial lines even though drug use itself does not appear to be so disproportionate:
Twenty-five years after President Ronald Reagan declared a war on drugs, many law-enforcement officials and criminologists say drugs are now cheaper and more potent, and as easily available as ever.
What the war did do was help drive the nation's prison population to more than quadruple its size from 1980 to 2005, with urban blacks and Latinos hardest hit -- a dramatically disproportionate result of the different networks that developed to distribute drugs.
According to federal data, blacks make up just 13 percent of the nation's illicit drug users, but they are 32 percent of those arrested for drug violations and 53 percent of those incarcerated in state prisons for drug crimes.
In Illinois, studies show that more than 70 percent of the state's illicit drug users are white, while 14 percent are black. But 65 percent of arrests for drug offenses are of African-Americans. And 66 percent of inmates in Illinois prisons for drug offenses are black, and Illinois' incarceration rate of blacks for drug possession is the highest in the country.
The disparity in arrests has contributed to a lasting perception that blacks use illegal drugs at much higher rates than other racial groups.
However, a 2003 study by the University of Illinois at Chicago's Survey Research Laboratory found that rates of illicit drug use in Illinois were in fact essentially equal across racial groups. Nationally, similar results were found by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
So drug usage rates tend to be similar across the board but minorities are disproportionately arrested and imprisoned for them. This data seems to be overwhelmingly on the side of those who believe that the War on Drugs as well as policing of drug policy is inherently racist.
But that's the macroscopic view. What is actually going on that would explain the disparity? The article also addresses this:
A Tribune analysis of recent "safe zone" laws, increasing penalties for drug sales near schools, churches, parks and other public places, shows the laws blanket many densely populated minority neighborhoods, further boosting the punishment level for urban dealers.
In explaining the disparity in incarceration, criminologists point to a basic difference in the way drugs are sold in cities and suburbs, one that makes African-Americans more vulnerable to arrest and imprisonment for drug possession and sales.
Drug dealing in inner-cities happens largely in open-air markets controlled by street gangs, who run a sophisticated, organized crime enterprise that, police say, is responsible for the bulk of violent crime in urban areas. Police target these marketplaces because that's where most calls for police services originate.
Open-air drug markets are rarer in white, middle- and upper-class neighborhoods, where dope dealing typically occurs within social networks, in places that draw little police attention, criminologists say.
"Police go looking for this stuff in cities where they don't look for it in suburbs because it's not causing the same kind of violence," said John Klofas, a criminologist at the Rochester Institute of Technology. "And if you're only looking at this as punishment for drug use, then it's a complicated set of circumstances that in the end produces this outcome that is, in fact, quite unfair."
In Illinois, the racial disparity in drug arrests is driven mainly by Chicago. In 2005, Chicago police made 47,000 arrests for drug offenses, and 79 percent of those arrests were of African-Americans, according to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.
But anecdotally, police say black neighborhoods are home to nearly all of Chicago's open-air drug markets, mostly in high-crime, high-poverty areas on the city's South and West Sides. Law-enforcement officials estimate the drug trade is responsible for up to 70 percent of the violent crime in the city.
"Most of the violence in Chicago on the West Side and the South Side is gang-related and it always stems back to some kind of fight over narcotics or narcotics turf or a narcotics corner," said Walter P. Hehner, deputy chief of narcotics prosecutions for the Cook County state's attorney's office. "Drug dealers, hookers, panhandlers, all hanging out there looking for money so they can get high."
So what we have here is a disparity in the way drugs themselves are distributed and the additional criminal activities going on in urban versus suburban or rural areas. This information would seem to help confirm the arguments of many that the racial disparity in enforcement has less to do with racial discrimination as opposed to the fact that the drug and other related crime is occurring disproportionately more in minority neighborhoods. Not just more often but more openly to boot.
It also points out that the divide may be more based on socioeconomic disparity between whites and minorities. It hints at the idea that the disparity in drug enforcement is itself a result of the differing methods of drug distribution and other complicating factors between the rich and poor more than anything to do with the color of the offender's skin. The racial disparities in enforcement and incarceration could be interpreted as being the logical end result of the racial disparities between the rich and poor to begin with. After all if the poor are committing more crimes and more openly then the poor will be more likely to get caught. If there is a racial disparity already in existence between the rich and poor it will propagate through this system.
But we just heard how drug use itself is not so disproportionate by race. How can the data appear to back both arguments depending on whether you're looking at it macroscopically or more regionally?
The article goes on to describe what is happening within these regions in more detail:
Ald. Walter Burnett's West Side 27th Ward was the site of the first open-air drug market shut down by police this year. Burnett said he is constantly fielding calls from residents who want police to shut down drug operations in the area.
Not only do residents feel they are imprisoned in their homes by the gang violence, he said, but they are also frustrated by the constant property crimes and street hustling committed by the drug users traveling into the neighborhood to buy dope.
"They steal everything," Burnett said. "They steal water hoses, they steal garbage cans, they steal gutters off of buildings. They break into houses, they break into cars. If you have children or a wife, you don't want them outside because these [drug users] are going to be walking all around looking like zombies."
Arthur J. Lurigio, professor of criminal justice at Loyola University, said police are simply following reports of crime.
"If you live in a suburb that has a small police department and low crime, the chances of you being stopped when you're walking down the street or driving in your car is significantly less than if you live in Englewood or Harrison or Wentworth," Lurigio said. "The police are not there because they're racists, the police are there because there's more crime there and there's more calls for service there. So if there's more police in a neighborhood, you're just more likely to be stopped, no matter what."
Hehner, of the state's attorney's office, said arrests for drug possession often result from other kinds of police stops -- officers are looking for violent offenders, but they see suspects trying hurriedly to get rid of their drugs, so-called "drop cases." It's an unavoidable part of good police work, he said.
So it's not just police themselves focusing on the more open drug trade in minority areas but residents themselves within those minority areas who are calling the police more often and demanding more enforcement for both drug crimes and the other criminal activity going on around them including gang activity.
One gets the strong impression that the disparity is coming less from any institutional racism than from the fact that minorities themselves are calling the police more often on other minorities in these areas because the drug crimes are occurring more openly there and in combination with various other criminal activity.
But is that the whole story?
The article argues that it is absolutely not:
Not only are blacks more likely to be arrested for possession and sale of drugs, they are also more likely to face stiffer punishment for those crimes because of sentencing enhancements tied to particular drug offenses. Federal law, for instance, mandates tougher sentences for crack cocaine, the smokable version of cocaine popular among inner-city drug users, than for powder cocaine, a form of the drug more prevalent among suburban whites.
Blacks are also disproportionately affected by amendments to the Illinois Controlled Substances Act that prescribe mandatory prison terms for selling drugs within 1,000 feet of places such as schools, churches, public housing and parks. According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, 90 percent of Illinois inmates with a primary offense of violating these so-called "safe zone" laws are African-American.
A Tribune analysis examining the locations of churches, schools, public parks and public housing developments found that nearly 70 percent of Chicago is within 1,000 feet of one or more such site.
A sampling of predominantly African-American neighborhoods in Chicago revealed that 97 percent of East Garfield Park, 99 percent of West Garfield Park, 98 percent of Woodlawn, 96 percent of Englewood and 82 percent of Austin fall within "safe zones."
Without the open-air drug markets and the attendant violent and property crime that orbit them, suburban police officers don't make the huge number of arrests for drug offenses like in Chicago, according to Terry Lemming, statewide drug and gun enforcement coordinator for the Illinois State Police.
"Open-air drug markets are an immediate problem because of all the related violence that goes with them," Lemming said. "The intimate sales of the suburbs are not a situation where the safety of citizens is at risk. The more intimate drug sales in the suburbs have to be attacked with a different way of enforcement."
The stiffer penalties for drug crimes committed in minority areas and for drugs that are typically more likely to be used by poorer minorities than more well off whites definitely appear to be helping to add to the disparity in actual convictions and longer incarceration, which in turn helps increase the disparity in the prison population.
The article ends with the simple question: "But if what you're really trying to do is stop people from using drugs, then wouldn't it be logical to go after everyone equally?"
Should we be treating drug crimes in poorer areas more harshly than in more well off communities? Should drug penalties be more harsh for some drugs than others? Is the increased difficulty in enforcing drug crimes in more well off communities a valid excuse to maintain the unequal enforcement of drug laws if the end goal is to end drug use?
All of these issues tend to help increase the racial disparity in convictions and incarceration for minorities in spite of the lack of disparity in actual usage and as pointed out has done little to stem the actual overall availability and usage of drugs in the United States or in Illinois. This disparity is only helping to ensure the continuing disparity in socioeconomic status between whites and minorities and thus helping to ensure these disparities continue or possibly just get worse.
But violent crime in the United States has dropped significantly overall since the War on Drugs began. Are these policies helping to get violent offenders off the street by catching them for drug offenses and getting to the networks of violent dealers and drug-funded gang operations?
Some might argue that the ends justify the means. But the ends aren't so clear from the macroscopic view. Urban areas still tend to have the bulk of our violent crime and gangs and young offenders were recently noted to be on the rebound by the Justice Department in the recent increase in violent crime within urban areas that has tempered the overall drop in violent crime and has recently become bad enough to reverse the downward trend slightly.
A great deal of the drop in violent crime appears to coincide with the drop in unemployment and improved economic conditions more generally. But these economic improvements have not been felt by all sections of our society equally. In the poorer urban areas that a racially disproportionate to include far more minorities these economic improvements have probably been felt the least and these areas still remain the hotbed for gang activity, open drug markets, and criminal activity related to those markets which includes a great deal of the violent crime in the country.
If these policies are working from the macroscopic view that does not negate the fact that they are not working where they are primarily being used. In fact it would appear that these policies while perhaps necessary are still not addressing the underlying problems causing them and possibly only helping to propagate them from generation to generation.
The underlying root of the problem remains clearly tied to economic disparities that desperately need to be addressed which these drug policies appear to overwhelmingly ignore and by doing so help continue. The solution would not appear to be in ensuring that middle and upper class white people's lives are also ruined by drug convictions as much as that might make things more fair. The system should not be designed around destroying people's lives but rehabilitating them, especially for something like drug addiction. The harsher penalties for drug offenders in poorer and disproportionately minority areas as opposed to rehabilitation appears to be inherently unfair and should be changed. Enforcement for drug policies should be changed to ensure that the enforcement is more equitably distributed in relation to the violations.
More importantly and far more critically we need to address the root causes of the problem: poverty and economic racial disparities. Otherwise the demand for drugs will continue, the supply market will continue to be profitable, and minorities will continue to be disproportionately and negatively affected.
Under our current drug laws the poor currently have a lucrative option of black market drug dealing to escape their economic problems with a strong demand by those who want to escape their economic, mental, and/or social woes. I believe we are long overdue in reevaluating the way our drug policies are helping to keep this black market open and profitable while continuing to neglect the obvious need for more rehabilitation over mere punishment for drug offenses that helps ensure that market has a continuing and strong demand.
Until we make some serious changes the drug problems of the country will continue to be a problem, continue to adversely and disproportionately affect minorities, and continue to propagate the socioeconomic disparities in race in the United States and Illinois.