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Racial Disparities in Drug Arrest

With the recent calls for radical change in the American police system it has brought light to the systematic racism in the American criminal justice system. Nationwide latinx and black communities especially have seen the most racial disparity. The increased amount of arrests are not a fair representation of drug use, but more a representation of police focus on urban areas, low income communities, and communities of color. We see disparities in arrest for drug possession and low level selling violations.

A brief history of the war on drugs

Early drug probation laws in America were directed at people of color. The first anti-opium laws were directed at Chinese immigrants, the first anti-cocaine laws were directed at black men in the south, the first anti marijuana laws directed at mexican immigrants in the midwest. The official start on the war on drugs was during the Nixon administration when according to one of his aides he used the criminalization of drugs to attack the anti-war left and black people. Then during the presidency of Ronald Regan his unprecedented expansion of the drug war led to the number of people in prison for nonviolent drug offences to go from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997.

The Facts

Nearly 80% of all people in federal prison and almost 60% in state prison are Black or Latinx. Research shows that prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for Black people as for white people charged with the same offense. Among people who received a mandatory minimum sentence in 2011, 38% were Latino and 31% were Black. Although marijuana is shown to be used at similar rates by white and black people, reports from the ACLU show that black people were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested before marrijana was legalized. From 2014 to 2016, in New York City alone, 86 percent of marijuana arrests were of black people and latinx people.

According to an University of Michigan law school article “Yet even after we control for these and other prior characteristics, an unexplained black-white sentence disparity of approximately 9 percent remains in our main sample. The disparity is nearly 13 percent in a broader sample that includes drug cases” (Rehavi and Starr, 5). We also see issues with minimum sentence requirements. In those cases the judge holds the power to create the disparities. “The racial disparity in federal criminal sentences and the importance of mandatory minimum charges in explaining sentence disparities is particularly striking because the crimes covered by this analysis have a relatively low prevalence of such charges. We identify such charges for 7.5 percent and 16.5 percent of white and black arrestees, respectively”(Rehavi and Starr, 5).

For non-citizens including legal permanent residents any drug law violation can trigger automatic detention and deportation often without possibility of return. A 2015 report by Human Rights Watch found that deportations for drug possession offenses increased by 43% from 2007 to 2012.


Rohan Collins

Bentonville West High School


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