Pubdate: Thu, 08 Jun 2000
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2000 The Washington Post Company
Contact:  1150 15th Street Northwest, Washington, DC 20071
Author: Michael A. Fletcher, Washington Post Staff Writer


The nation's war on drugs unfairly targets African Americans, who are far 
more likely to be imprisoned for drug offenses than whites even though far 
more whites use illegal drugs than blacks, according to a new report by the 
advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

The report, to be released today, said that African Americans accounted for 
62 percent of the drug offenders sent to state prisons nationwide in 1996, 
the most recent year for which statistics are available, although they 
represent just 12 percent of the U.S. population. Overall, black men are 
sent to state prisons on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men, 
according to the study, which analyzes a wide range of Justice Department 
information for 37 states to come up with its findings.

These disparities exist even though data gathered by the Department of 
Health and Human Services show that in 1991, 1992 and 1993, about five 
times as many whites had used cocaine than blacks, the report said. The 
report added that drug transactions among blacks often are easier for 
police to target because they more often occur in public than do drug 
transactions among whites.

"These racial disparities are a national scandal," said Ken Roth, executive 
director of Human Rights Watch, an international human rights organization. 
"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 disparities are particularly striking in individual states, where black 
men are sent to prison on drug charges at rates as much as 57 times greater 
than that of white men. In Maryland, for example, blacks make up 27 percent 
of the population and 90 percent of those sent to prison on drug charges 
– for a rate that is 28 times greater than whites.

In Virginia, meanwhile, blacks are 82 percent of those sent to prison on 
drug charges and just 20 percent of the population. Overall, they are sent 
to prison on drug charges at a rate 21 times greater than whites.

"More blacks were sent to state prison nationwide on drug charges than for 
crimes of violence," Jamie Fellner, associate counsel for Human Rights 
Watch, wrote in the report. "Only 27 percent of black admissions to prison 
were for crimes of violence – compared to 38 percent for drug offenses."

The Human Rights Watch report adds to a growing array of studies 
documenting racial disparities in the nation's criminal justice system. A 
report last month by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights found that 
African Americans and Hispanics are treated more harshly than similarly 
situated whites at every level of the criminal justice system. And that 
report came on the heels of a study by the National Council on Crime and 
Delinquency showing that black and Hispanic youth are more likely than 
whites to be arrested, prosecuted, held in jail without bail and sentenced 
to long prison terms.

Remedies suggested in the Human Rights Watch report include the repeal of 
mandatory sentencing laws for drug offenders, increasing drug treatment and 
eliminating racial profiling as a police tactic.

Largely because of the huge disparity in imprisonment for drug offenses, 
blacks are sent to prison at 8.2 times the rate of whites. Overall, one in 
20 black men over the age of 18 is in a state or federal prison, compared 
to one in 180 white men.

"Prison is a legitimate criminal sanction," the report said. "But it should 
be used sensibly, justly, parsimoniously, and with due consideration . . . 
and respect for human dignity required by international human rights law. 
The incarceration of hundreds of thousands of low-level, non-violent drug 
offenders betrays indifference to such considerations."
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