Racial disparities persist in drug arrests

WASHINGTON Tue May 6, 2008 6:04am EDT

Camden police department officers search suspects in a night raid in Camden, New Jersey March 24, 2005. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Camden police department officers search suspects in a night raid in Camden, New Jersey March 24, 2005.

Credit: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. "war on drugs" disproportionately targets urban minority neighborhoods with African Americans being arrested and imprisoned on drug charges at much higher rates, according to a pair of reports released on Monday by rights groups.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said a review of new statistics across 34 states found persistent racial disparities among drug offenders sent to prison.

The 67-page report concludes that a black man is 11.8 times more likely than a white man to be sent to prison on drug charges, and a black woman is 4.8 times more likely than a white woman.

In 16 states, African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at rates between 10 and 42 times greater than the rate for whites, the report said.

"Most drug offenders are white, but most of the drug offenders sent to prison are black," said Jamie Fellner, a Human Rights Watch official and author of the report.

"The solution is not to imprison more whites but to radically rethink how to deal with drug abuse and low-level drug offenders."

Wisconsin, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, West Virginia, Colorado, New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Michigan were listed as the 10 states with the greatest racial disparities in prison admissions for drug offenders.

In a separate study, the Washington-based Sentencing Project examined data from 43 of the largest American cities between 1980 and 2003.

The study found that, since 1980, the rate of drug arrests for African Americans increased by 225 percent, compared to 70 percent among whites.

In nearly half of the cities, the odds of arrest for a drug offense among African Americans relative to whites more than doubled, the report said.

Among other findings, the report said African-American drug arrests increased at 3.4 times the rate of whites despite similar rates of drug use.

"These trends come not as the result of higher rates of drug use among African Americans, but, instead, the decisions by local officials about where to pursue drug enforcement," said Ryan King, a policy analyst for The Sentencing Project.

The project and Human Rights Watch recommended the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences and a return to judicial discretion in the sentencing of drug offenders.

(Editing by Chris Wilson)

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