Guess What? The Criminal Justice System is Racist

Guess What? The Criminal Justice System is Racist April 9, 2016

Longtime readers of my blog will certainly not be surprised to hear that the criminal justice system is racist, but let’s put more evidence onto the pile anyway. A new study shows that white people are more likely — far more likely in some cases — to use hard drugs than black people. Guess who gets arrested, charged, convicted and imprisoned more?


By now we can all agree that the real target of Reagan’s enduring war on drugs was never drugs, it was African Americans. But if rising incarceration rates among black youth or the utter failure to curtail drug use is not enough proof, perhaps a new study from Northwestern University on racial differences among drug users will do the trick.

According to the study’s findings recently published in the American Journal of Public Health, abuse and dependence on “hard drugs” (opiates, amphetamine, etc.) are “less common among delinquent African American youth than those who are non-Hispanic white.”

The study was conducted over the course of 12 years and interviewed 1,829 youth (1,172 males and 657 females between the ages of 10 to 18) who were detained at Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago between 1995 and 1998.

Researchers interviewed the participants in the study up to nine times through the course of their 20s. In that time, findings revealed that the odds of non-Hispanic white youths using cocaine were 30 times higher than African Americans. Hispanic participants trailed slightly behind, showing 20 times the odds of cocaine use compared to their African-American brethren…

“Our findings add to the growing debate on how the war on drugs has affected African Americans,” said Teplin. “We found that African Americans are less likely than other racial/ethnic groups to abuse hard drugs. Yet African Americans are disproportionately incarcerated for drug crimes.”

And guess what? Whites are also more likely to deal drugs than blacks.

An estimated one-third of black male Americans will spend time in state or federal prison at some point in their lifetime – more than double the rate from the 1970s and over five times higher than the rate for white males.

What’s driving the imprisonment of black men? Arrest data show a striking trend: arrests of blacks have fallen for violent and property crimes, but soared for drug related crimes. As of 2011, drug crimes comprised 14 percent of all arrests and a miscellaneous category that includes “drug paraphernalia” possession comprised an additional 31 percent of all arrests. Just 6 percent and 14 percent of arrests were for violent and property crimes, respectively.

The black share of people arrested for drug offenses has ranged from 23 percent (in 1980) to 41 percent (in 1991). Blacks remain far more likely than whites to be arrested for selling drugs (3.6 times more likely) or possessing drugs (2.5 times more likely).

Here’s the real shock: whites are actually more likely than blacks to sell drugs and about as likely to consume them.

Whites were about 45 percent more likely than blacks to sell drugs in 1980, according to an analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth by economist Robert Fairlie. This was consistent with a 1989 survey of youth in Boston. My own analysis of data from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that 6.6 percent of white adolescents and young adults (aged 12 to 25) sold drugs, compared to just 5.0 percent of blacks (a 32 percent difference).

Racist to the core. And these are decisions made on both a national and local level. The allocation of law enforcement resources devoted to the drug war has grown immensely, largely driven by federal grants to local police departments that are based on the number of arrests, amount of drugs seized and so forth. That gives police departments a huge incentive to go after low-level drug users and dealers. Add to that the incentive of boosting their budgets through asset forfeiture. And at the local level, the allocation of those resources focuses almost exclusively on inner cities. They don’t care about the lawyer doing coke in the executive men’s room or the college kid selling pot to his friends.

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