A groundbreaking study of the racial disparities in arrest rates for individuals who sell drugs in Seattle was released this week. The study, commissioned by Seattle public defenders and authored by University of Washington sociologist Katherine Beckett, shows that African-Americans who sell drugs in Seattle are much more likely to be arrested than Caucasian offenders. According to the study, although whites comprise a much higher proportion of individuals who are actually selling drugs, between 1999 and 2001 blacks were 2 to 4 times more likely than white offenders to be arrested for selling cocaine; 22.6 times more likely to be arrested for selling heroin; and 31.6 times more likely to be arrested for selling methamphetamines.
Overall, while blacks comprise just 8.3% of the Seattle population, according to the 2000 census, 63% of those arrested by the Seattle Police Department in the period covered by the study for selling cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, and ecstasy were black, while just 19% were white.
The Seattle report builds on years of research showing rampant racial discrimination at every level of the war on drugs. African-Americans comprise nearly two-thirds of all drug offenders admitted to state prison nationally, for example, though they constitute only 13% of drug users in the U.S. In 2000, Human Rights Watch reported that although whites and blacks use drugs at a similar rate, black men are admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate that is 13.4 times greater than that of white men -- with rates up to 57 times greater in some states. In Maryland and Illinois, blacks constitute 90% of all people sent to prison for drug law violations.
Some of the factors that have been shown to contribute to the dramatic racial disparities in the arrest and conviction rates of drug users and sellers include:
Systematic Racial Profiling -- A 1996 study of traffic stops along I-95 in Maryland showed that blacks constituted 72.9% of drivers stopped and searched by state police, though they made up only 17.5% of total drivers and were no more likely than their white counterparts to be violating the law.
Law Enforcement Practices -- Aggressive police tactics such as massive street sweeps, "buy and bust" operations and other activities are heavily targeted at street level drug activity, as opposed to less visible drug activity prevalent in more affluent communities.
Sentencing Disparities -- Federal mandatory minimum sentences make African American drug offenders more likely to be incarcerated and for longer periods of time than whites. Under legislation passed by Congress in 1986, it takes 1/100 as much crack cocaine as powder cocaine to trigger equal mandatory minimum sentences. In 1985, although blacks did not make up a majority of crack users, they accounted for 88% of those sentenced for crack offenses.
"The Seattle report is one more public affirmation of a fact that black Americans already know -- that the 'war on drugs' is really a war on people of color and an excuse to continue to arrest and incarcerate blacks for behavior that whites engage in with impunity," said Deborah Small, director of public policy and community outreach at the Drug Policy Alliance. "Hopefully, this report will lead local officials to rethink their adherence to drug enforcement strategies that do little to impact drug use and crime, but cause considerable harm to communities of color."
The attorneys who commissioned the study of arrests for drug delivery are challenging racial bias in Seattle drug arrests, and are part of the Racial Disparity Project of the Defender Association in Seattle. The Seattle Police Department and the King County Prosecutor attempted to prevent Professor Beckett and the attorneys from making their data public, but Judge Richard A. Jones of King County Superior Court rejected the police and prosecutor arguments in a ruling issued November 12th, authorizing the release of the data.
Professor Beckett estimated the racial breakdown of drug sellers in Seattle by using a combination of public health data, known behaviors of heavy drug users, interviews with Seattle drug users, and direct observations of open-air drug markets. She then compared this information against data on drug arrests to reach her conclusion that while blacks are a substantial minority of the individuals who sell drugs in Seattle, they are a majority of the people arrested for sales.
The study offers a model for other cities around the country. The problems facing Seattle are not unique; there are claims of racial disparities in arrest and conviction rates in all major cities. Responsible research to quantify the levels of discriminatory arrest practices will allow localities to address these problems in a new and concerted way.
"With nearly two million men and women in jail and prison in America, many of them for nonviolent drug offenses, and many of them people of color, we must stop and reassess the strategies of the war on drugs over the last twenty years," stated Judy Appel, deputy director of the office of legal affairs for Drug Policy Alliance.
Drug Policy Alliance is a non-profit organization working to end the harms caused by the war on drugs and to promote alternative drug policies based on science, compassion, health and human rights.
Drug Policy Alliance will host the third annual "Breaking the Chains" conference on the impact of the drug war on communities of color in April of 2004 in Houston, Texas. Breaking the Chains organizers expect a diverse group of community activists, drug treatment providers, family members of those incarcerated for drug offenses and others to gather for upcoming event.