Pete at Drug WarRant and Scott at Drug War Chronicle have each fired off very sharp critiques of George Will’s fairly awful column from Sunday’s Washington Post, which seems to be an attempt to out-do James Wilson in its celebration of American incarceration rates.
The main point I want to emphasize is that when we talk about race, drug law and incarceration rates, it’s worth remembering that in the last six months there have been not one but three reports released by three different agencies, each of which documents in considerable detail the disproportionate impact of the American war on drugs on communities of color. The reports are
Human Rights Watch: Targeting Blacks: Drug Law Enforcment and Race in the United States (May 2008)
The Sentencing Project: Disparity by Geography: The War on Drugs in America’s Cities (May 2008)
Justice Policy Institute: The Vortex: The Concentrated Racial Impact of Drug Imprisonment and the Characteristics of Punitive Counties (December 2007)
In popular policy arguments of the sort Will has just written and of the sort Wilson is no doubt working up into a book even as I type this, it’s common to see a few statistics thrown around to prove a broad point. Will does this with race, using numbers very selectively and using a strawman argument about crack sentencing to suggest that any concern about race in the drug war is nonsense, as Pete emphasizes.
However, what the reports of Human Rights Watch, The Sentencing Project and the Justice Policy Institute demonstrate, in considerable detail, is that an accurate representation of the drug war is one in which there are overwhelming disparities based on race. Not minor or statistically insignificant disparities, and not disparities that correlate to differential criminality.
(Above: Black vs. white arrest rates on drug offenses in San Francisco. Click to enlarge.)
I originally ran this graph, taken from the Justice Policy Institute’s report, back when that report was released. It shows the arrest rates for drug offenses, broken down by race, in my town, San Francisco, and it shows that African Americans get arrested for drug offenses at a rate 28 times as high as that of whites. The critical thing to realize about this graph, however, is that San Francisco is not that bad in terms of its racial disparities, compared to many American counties studied in the report. In Forsyth County, North Carolina, the African American drug incarceration rate is 164 times as high as that for whites!
We can only ignore and rationalize away these numbers for so long. At some point, reality begins to matter.
(Update: In connection with this issue, it’s also important to remember Professor Doris Marie Provine’s very good book Unequal Under Law: Race in the War on Drugs. An interview with Professor Provine about the book, racial disparities in the drug war, and contemporary attitudes on race is here.)