Study shows drug efforts target blacks

Human Rights group contends Maryland leads in arrests

Stunned by the results Rights group's study says Md. imprisons highest percentage

`Stunned by the results'

June 08, 2000|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

Maryland ranks number one in the percentage of minorities locked up for drug crimes , according to a major national study released yesterday that suggests national anti-drug efforts have targeted blacks while paying far less attention to whites.

The study, released by the national advocacy group Human Rights Watch, contends that, although the vast majority of people involved with illegal drugs are white, far more black people in virtually every state are sent to prison for drug crimes.

That is especially true in Maryland. State data indicate that nine out of 10 people sentenced to prison for drug crimes are black, even though five times more whites than blacks use illegal drugs. Maryland's population is about 27 percent black. Only Illinois posted similar numbers

Nationally, the study found, about six out of 10 people sentenced to jail for drug crimes are black. Blacks make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population.

"We assumed the numbers would be bad, but we were stunned by the results," said Jamie Fellner, an attorney with Human Rights Watch who wrote the study. "The magnitude of the disparity was breathtaking."

The study also shows -- for the first time, Human Rights Watch said -- how national figures mask even greater disparities within individual states. Along with Maryland and Illinois, South Carolina and North Carolina had wide disparities in drug sentencing.

In Maryland, 79 percent of the overall prison population is black, according to the National Corrections Reporting Program. The study suggests that such overall racial disparities among those imprisoned results, in no small measure, to the disparity among the races in drug-related incarcerations

"It suggests this country has lost sight of the proper use of prison, which is the most severe sanction that can be imposed short of the death penalty," said Fellner in a phone interview from the advocacy group's headquarters in New York City. "Unlike crimes of violence, where you could say prison is probably a legitimate response, drug sellers -- street level guys, not kingpins -- are probably not best handled by being locked away."

The study, based on state and federal data, does not point to racism as a reason for the disparity but suggests that law-enforcement efforts most often target inner-city neighborhoods, with drug sweeps and other actions that lead to the arrest of blacks.

In contrast, few resources are devoted toward white people using illegal drugs in such neighborhoods as Federal Hill.

Fellner said she is aware of the violence associated with street-corner drug dealing -- which might account for the increased law-enforcement presence in inner-city neighborhoods -- but she said that does not justify the disparity in incarcerations. Anti-drug efforts could be more effective and cause fewer racial disparities if law officers concentrated on mid- and upper-level dealers, she said.

Among the recommendations in the report, Human Rights Watch calls on state and federal officials to:

Eliminate sentencing laws that require prison sentences based on the quantity of drugs sold.

Increase the use of drug courts and alternative sentencing for low-level users and dealers to keep them out of prison and allow them to complete court supervised substance abuse treatment.

Redirect law-enforcement efforts from corner dealers to major distributors and manufacturers.

Eliminate racial profiling and the differing sentencing structures for powder cocaine and crack cocaine. Federal law requires longer prison sentences for crack cocaine, popular in the inner-city, and about 10 states have similar structures in place.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening said yesterday that he had not had a chance to review the report completely but that many of the recommendations are in line with state policy.

"We are doing strong intervention to try to reduce drug crime," he said through a spokesman, adding that support for treatment programs and efforts to eliminate racial profiling "are in sync with the goal of ensuring any racial disparity is not racial discrimination."

Jenkins Odoms Jr., president of the Maryland NAACP, said causes of the disparities go beyond police practices, extending to overall discrimination against blacks in the state and elsewhere, but that law enforcement could do much a much better job.

"Look at the economics of it," he said. "To eliminate this, our law-enforcement agencies -- the police the FBI, everybody -- they all have to focus on the big-time dealers. Every time they lock up one African-American, another will take his place. But the rich man, the dealer, is still dealing. You have not taken the drug off the street. To eliminate this disparity, you have to get the drug off the street."

Bob Weiner, a spokesman for Barry McCaffrey, President Clinton's drug czar, said strong national efforts have begun to end racial disparities and that he hopes the report will prompt others to join the cause.

Drug courts -- which call for supervised, mandatory drug treatment instead of prison sentences -- have increased from 12 to 750 across the nation since 1995, he said, and funding for treatment has increased by $3.5 billion in the same period.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.