California’s War on Drugs Targets Minorities

By Mike Males, for Justice Policy Institute, 27 October 2000

Blacks and Latinos are much more likely to be arrested and
imprisoned for drugs than Whites at all age levels despite
the fact that Whites display worse illegal-drug abuse problems

California’s youth and adults of color are going to prison for drug offenses at much higher rates than whites even though older whites display generally higher levels and the worst increase in abuse of illegal drugs.

Since the 1980s, older (over age 30) white adults have suffered rising rates of drug abuse while drug abuse declined sharply among younger (under age 30) people and among people of color. However, increases in imprisonment for drug offenses have been two to three times greater for people of color than for Whites over the period (as measured by absolute increases in drug imprisonments adjusted for population growth by age and race, the most accurate measure).

Today, older white adults display drug overdose death rates five to seven times higher than younger people of color, including for the major illicit drugs such as heroin, cocaine (including crack), methamphetamine, and hallucinogens (Table 1). However, young people of color are three times more likely to be arrested for drugs and sent to prison for drug offenses than older white adults.

The result is that at all ages, a Californian of color is four to five times more likely to be imprisoned for a drug offense than a white compared to their rates of drug abuse. That older African-Americans still suffer rates of drug abuse deaths 50% to 80% higher than older whites does not justify a drug arrest and imprisonment rate among older blacks 4 to 8 times higher than for older whites. In general, harsher drug enforcement and imprisonment policies aimed at nonwhites are not necessitated by greater drug abuse problems in communities of color. In fact, young people of color display the largest declines and lowest rates of drug abuse of any group.

African-Americans and Latinos illustrate the “funneling” effect of current drug-law enforcement (Table 1). Blacks comprise 11% of the state’s drug abusers, but 22% of those arrested and 30% of those imprisoned on drug charges. Latinos comprise 20% of drug abusers, 32% of drug arrestees, and 36% of those imprisoned for drugs. Whites, in contrast, benefit from the “reverse funnel” effect. Whites constitute 66% of California’s drug abusers, but just 41% of those arrested and 30% of those imprisoned for drug offenses. Asians comprise 3% of drug abusers and 3% of drug-offense prisoners.

When arrested for drugs, minorities are considerably more likely to be charged with felonies. For all drug arrestees, 3.2% of younger whites and 8.6% of older whites wind up in prison, compared to 7.4% of younger people of color and 14.0% of older people of color arrested for drugs. Even when only felony arrests are considered, only 8% of younger whites and 15% of older whites are imprisoned, compared to 14% of younger-minority and 23% of older-minority felony drug arrestees.

The higher percentage increases in drug arrests and prison sentences for older white adults appear, at least in part, to result from growing drug abuse in that group. However, the increase in arrests and prison sentences among young people of all colors and older people of color occurred despite falling drug abuse levels.

Table 1. Drug abuse, arrest, imprisonment odds by age and race, California, 1995-99

Whites over age 30 comprise:
36% of state “at risk” population (age 10-69)
60% of drug deaths
24% of drug arrests
25% of drug imprisonments

Blacks over age 30 comprise:
4% of state “at risk” population (age 10-69)
10% of drug deaths
14% of drug arrests
22% of drug imprisonments

Hispanics over age 30 comprise:
16% of state “at risk” population (age 10-69)
17% of drug deaths
12% of drug arrests
20% of drug imprisonments

Asians over age 30 comprise:
8% of state “at risk” population (age 10-69)
2% of drug deaths
2% of drug arrests
2% of drug imprisonments

Whites under age 30 comprise:
16% of state “at risk” population (age 10-69)
7% of drug deaths
19% of drug arrests
7% of drug imprisonments

Blacks under age 30 comprise:
3% of state “at risk” population (age 10-69)
1% of drug deaths
8% of drug arrests
8% of drug imprisonments

Hispanics under age 30 comprise:
13% of state “at risk” population (age 10-69)
3% of drug deaths
20% of drug arrests
16% of drug imprisonments

Asians under age 30 comprise:
5% of state “at risk” population (age 10-69)
1% of drug deaths
2% of drug arrests
1% of drug imprisonments

Note: “Percent change” results from dividing the most recent rate (1998 for overdoses and arrests, 1999 for imprisonments) by the corresponding rate for 1980 (arrests and imprisonments) or 1985 (overdoses). “Absolute change” results from subtracting the 1980 or 1985 rate from its corresponding 1998 rate. The 1998 or 1999 rate is per 100,000 population by race and age (<30 is age 15-29; >30 is age 30-69).

Sources: Drug arrests: Criminal Justice Statistics Center, California Department of Justice
Imprisonments: Data Analysis Unit, California Department of Corrections
Overdoses: Center for Health Statistics, California Department of Health Services
Population: Demographic Research Unit, California Department of Finance

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