The San Francisco Chron has a long article about the fact that, in the Bay Area, blacks are locked up disproportionately for drug crimes, as compared to whites:
San Francisco imprisons African Americans for drug offenses at a much higher rate than whites, according to a report to be released today by a nonprofit research institute.
In a study of nearly 200 counties nationwide, the Justice Policy Institute found that 97 percent of large-population counties have racial disparities between the number of black people and white people sent to prison on drug convictions.
The institute, which is based in Washington, D.C., and researches public policy and promotes alternatives to incarceration, says whites and African Americans use illicit drugs at similar rates. But black people account for more than 50 percent of sentenced drug offenders, though they make up only 13 percent of the nation’s population.
San Francisco locks up a higher percentage of members of the African American community in drug cases than any other county in the study. In the county, 123 people out of every 100,000 are sent to state prison each year for drug offenses. Of those, whites are incarcerated at a rate of 35 per 100,000 white people, while blacks are incarcerated at a rate of 1,013 per 100,000 black people.
“It is not that San Francisco is sending a lot of people to prison for drug offenses, it is that the people they are sending are black,” said Jason Ziedenberg, executive director of the institute. “An average citizen who uses drugs in San Francisco has a pretty low chance of going to prison, but if you are African American, the chances are fairly high.”
San Francisco has a small population of African Americans – 6.7 percent of the total, according to the Census Bureau’s 2006 American Community Survey – but Ziedenberg said the numbers have a concentrated impact within that community. African Americans are going to prison for drug offenses at a rate that is 28 times higher than the rate for whites.
“If you go to any courtroom in the Hall of Justice, you will see that the majority arrested are African American,” said San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi. “At every stage of the criminal process – arrest, conviction and those who are sent to prison – there is a disproportionate impact on blacks.
“It is a tradition in San Francisco to focus sting operations in communities where there are larger populations of African Americans, and there are state and federal grants that support those stings.”
Alameda and San Mateo counties also have disproportionately high rates of incarcerating African Americans for drug offenses, according to the report. In Alameda County, 159 per 100,000 people are admitted to prison each year for drug offenses. Of those, whites are imprisoned at a rate of 23 per 100,000 white people, while blacks are incarcerated at a rate of 797 per 100,000 black people.
In San Mateo County, 76 out of every 100,000 people are admitted to prison each year for drug offenses. Of those, whites are imprisoned at a rate of 26 per 100,000 white people, while blacks are incarcerated at a rate of 946 per 100,000 black people.
In addition to the racial disparities, the report found that counties that spend more on policing and the judicial system imprison people for drug offenses at higher rates, even if the crime rate isn’t higher. It also found that counties with higher poverty and unemployment rates send people to prison more.
I have no quarrel with the numbers. It is absolutely true that more blacks go to prison than whites for drug crimes, even though there are fewer blacks in the overall population. What I wondered about, and what the article does not address, is the types of drugs at issue.
Are the blacks and whites using the same drugs, or are the whites using softer drugs? I ask this because, when I was a young lawyer in San Francisco, everyone I knew smoked pot, the drug that makes you boring. (Incidentally, I didn’t. I tried it once and found the effects of inhaling so distressing, both physically and mentally, that I never wanted to touch it again.) Pot is illegal. It is also ubiquitous amongst young whites (and, I guess, among young people of all other races) and is the kind of thing that police officers definitely do not seem to target — probably because stoned people are inert and harmless.
Getting away from pot, there wasn’t much else going on drug-wise among the white young people I knew (and this includes high school and college, too.) While there was a brief boom of cocaine amongst some of the Yuppies with whom I worked (and one of them distinguished himself by driving off the roof of a two story parking garage while high), I was unaware of any other, harder drugs: heroin, meth, crack, etc. And my sense has always been that it is those drugs, which destroy communities and increase the overall crime rate, that attract the attention of law enforcement.
So, based on my wild hypothesizing, I’m not going to assume that law enforcement in the Bay Area is racist until I have more information, not just about arrest numbers, but about the types of drugs that drive those arrests.
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