Young city black men: 56% in trouble Study of Baltimore says problem is racial bias in U.S. war on drugs

September 01, 1992|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

More than half of Baltimore's young black men were in trouble with the law on any given day last year, according to a study that criticizes the federal government for making enemies of black men and war zones of their communities.

The 10-page report, to be released today by the Alexandria, Va.-based National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA), said 56 percent of Baltimore's black men between the ages of 18 and 35 were either in prison, on parole or probation, being sought on arrest warrants or awaiting trial on an average day in 1991.

Baltimore was the second city surveyed by NCIA, which seeks alternatives to prison. In April, a study by the organization created a furor in Washington when it reported that 42 percent of black men between 18 to 35 in the District of Columbia were

caught in the criminal justice web.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said he was surprised when he learned that more young black men were under criminal justice supervision in Baltimore than in Washington. He said his staff confirmed the figure with its own study.

"The report, in my opinion, describes not just a local problem but a national tragedy," Mr. Schmoke said.

Herbert J. Hoelter, director and co-founder of NCIA, was also astonished by the findings. "We couldn't believe the numbers in Baltimore. I sent our people back a second time and a third time, and they came back the same," he said.

Mr. Hoelter linked the increasing involvement of young black men in the criminal justice system to the federal government's war on drugs. "We've been seeing it for the past four or five years," he said.

The study says the war on drugs places too much emphasis on law enforcement at the expense of addressing the root causes of drug use and distribution.

"That war has been racially biased and its casualties have been young, male and African-American," the study says. "In effect, African-American men have been made 'the enemy.' Clearly, the streets have not been made safer; rather, the 'war' tactics have converted them into war zones."

Among the report's findings:

* 34,025 of Baltimore's 60,715 black men between 18 and 35 were under criminal justice supervision on a given day in 1991. That included 14,895 under state probation, 8,000 being sought on arrest warrants or awaiting trial, 5,626 in state prisons, 3,134 on state parole, 1,905 at the Baltimore Detention Center and 465 on federal parole or probation.

* Blacks numbered more than 11,000 of the approximately 13,000 people arrested on drug charges in the city last year.

* Eighty-two percent of all juveniles arrested in Baltimore in 1991 were black.

* In 1991, 1,304 black youths were charged with drug sales, up from 86 in 1981. Last year's total compares with only 13 white juveniles arrested on drug charges.

"While some might attribute these disparities to alleged greater drug use by African-Americans, national studies indicate otherwise," the report states. "The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that whites make up 77 percent of all drug users, African-Americans 15 percent and Latinos 8 percent."

The report said blacks are arrested and imprisoned on drug charges in Baltimore at a rate that is disproportionate to their involvement with drugs.

Mayor Schmoke reiterated his call for debate on decriminalizing some illegal narcotics to reduce the accompanying crime.

"I hope that the national policy-makers take a look at the study," Mr. Schmoke said. "If the numbers are to be turned around, we have to change national policy.

"We have to get people back to work, get them a proper education, adequate housing, and we have to take the profit out of drug trafficking. . . . I know people will say there he goes again talking about decriminalization, but the policies that we have aren't working."

George N. Buntin, president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, blamed the high number of blacks in the criminal justice system on "the double-standard of the implementation of justice in black communities vs. white communities."

Mr. Buntin said local, state and federal officials have not tried to deal with the problem.

"We spend more than $20,000 a year to keep someone locked up when we can send them to college for less than five grand a year. We could put people to work on public works projects for less than we're spending to keep them in jail," he said. "Statistics show that the more education a person has, the less likely he is to commit a crime."

"I don't know when this country is going to wake up. We cannot incarcerate all our problems away."

Mr. Buntin said blacks shoulder some of the blame for the statistics because they haven't banded together to use their political clout to force public officials to find solutions.

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