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Study: Changing Drug Policies Curb Racial Disparities In State Prisons

In 2000, African Americans were 8.3 times more likely than whites to be locked up in state prisons. The racial disparity dropped to 5.1 to 1 by 2016.
Posted at 6:43 PM, Dec 04, 2019

African American adults remain five times more likely to be locked up in state prisons than whites. And Latinos are 1.5 times more likely than whites to be incarcerated. And yet a new study says racial disparities in prisons are narrowing markedly, thanks to changes in drug enforcement.

That's according to the non-partisan Council on Criminal Justice policy group. Its research of prison population trends between 2000 and 2016 showed that the gap between the number of black inmates and white inmates shrank by 38.5%.

In fact, the number of African American males in state prisons dropped by 48,000 people, while the population of white male inmates increased by 59,000.

Overwhelmingly, the study authors say, the differences are because fewer African Americans — as well as Latinos — are being targeted for drug offenses. Many criminal justice and drug policy advocates have long blamed disproportionate policing of narcotics violations, from marijuana to crack cocaine, for racial disparities in prisons.

Adam Gelb is president and chief executive of the Council on Criminal Justice, which was founded in July to analyze challenges in the criminal justice system. Gelb said evolving drug enforcement started to reduce those disparities, even before many states embraced marijuana legalization.

Gelb said: “It’s clear that somewhere along the way, societal attitudes toward drugs and drug enforcement started to change.” He says racial disparities in prison populations remains a serious issue, but "it turns out, it's a bad problem that is getting a little better."

In 2000, the study found African Americans were 15 times more likely than whites to be sent to state prisons for drug crimes. That number has fallen to five times more likely.

The report also noted that violent crime rates among African Americans dropped by an average of 2% a year between 2000 and 2016. That was double the decline in violent offenses for whites.