Pubdate: Thu, 13 Dec 2007
Source: Buffalo News (NY)
Copyright: 2007 The Buffalo News
Author: Rod Watson
Bookmark: (Racial Issues)


The first county-by-county look at U.S. drug  imprisonment rates uses 
hard numbers to document what  many already know: The drug war is 
primarily waged  against African-Americans "despite solid evidence 
that  they are no more likely than their white counterparts"  to use 
or sell drugs.

And Erie County is one of the places where that drug  war hits blacks hardest.

"In Erie County, African-Americans are admitted to  prison for a drug 
offense at 30 times the rate of  whites," according to the Justice 
Policy Institute,  which analyzed per-capita drug imprisonment rates 
in  large counties.

That ratio ranked Erie County 26th out of the 198  counties in the 
new study, "The Vortex: The  Concentrated Racial Impact of Drug 
Imprisonment and the  Characteristics of Punitive Counties."

The local disparity is best summed up by City Judge  Robert T. 
Russell Jr., who presides over Buffalo's drug  court and is a past 
chairman of the National  Association of Drug Court Professionals.

"Mind-boggling," Russell said when told of the study's  local findings.

JPI, citing other research, notes that it's not that  blacks use or 
sell drugs more. Other studies have shown  little difference between 
the races. For instance, the  federal government's 2006 National 
Survey on Drug Use  and Health showed 9.8 percent of blacks using 
drugs in  a given month, compared with 8.5 percent of whites.

Granted, the crime associated with the inner-city drug  trade might 
account for some of the disparity. But the  vast majority of those 
arrested are not kingpins or  gang members; they're low-level 
sellers, many of whom  are addicts themselves, said Jason Ziedenberg, 
JPI's executive director. And those kinds of users and  dealers exist 
in the suburbs and rural communities, as  well.

So why the huge disparities? Part of it is the view  that, when 
blacks are involved in a crime, it's a  personal failure worthy of 
punishment, whereas when  whites are involved, it's a societal 
problem worthy of  treatment. Whites also are likely to have 
better  lawyers, the study noted. Mandatory minimum sentences  also 
hit blacks harder, as do disparate policing  policies.

Put it all together, and you have a concentrated effort  that 
disproportionately disrupts African-American  lives, families and 
communities and pushes too many  blacks outside of society's margins.

And if you think that makes sense, ask yourself one  question: What 
would the "war on drugs" look like if  the prison admission rates for 
blacks and whites were  reversed?

We know what the answer would be. But don't count on  too many people 
even asking that question.

Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark said that  he hadn't 
seen the study but that he'd already seen  enough in an e-mail from 
the Onondaga County DA to  dismiss it.

Critics contend that the study distorts reality by, for  instance, 
not factoring in the relatively small size of  the black population 
in some counties. The Onondaga  County DA complained to a Syracuse 
newspaper that he  could "prove the Earth is flat if I used their methodology."

But if cops, prosecutors and judges take that attitude  and dismiss 
the thrust of the study, that's exactly the  kind of Earth they must 
be living on. All they have to  do is stroll through a prison with 
their blinders off.

"Why are we playing a numbers game here?" asked  Ziedenberg, whose 
JPI wants to end the U.S.  overreliance on prison. "Why aren't we 
talking about  solutions to these problems?"

You can bet we would be . . . if whites were  disproportionately 
targeted like this.
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