The Changing Face of America's War On Drugs

For years, America's war on drugs has disproportionately landed black and Latino men in jail. But a new study by the Sentencing Project indicates that is changing. Marc Mauer, author of The Changing Racial Dynamics of the War on Drugs and head of the Sentencing Project, discusses reasons behind new racial disparities in U.S. drug sentencing.

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, a portrait of the undocumented. A new report from the Pew Hispanic Center gives new information about who the undocumented are, where they came from, and where they are now. We'll find out more in just a few minutes.

But first, if you imagine an inmate at a state prison serving time for a drug related crime, who do you see? A man, an African-American man, a Latino man? Until recently America's war on drugs disproportionately affected African-Americans and Latinos. But a new study by the Sentencing Project finds that this trend might be changing. The report, "The Changing Racial Dynamics of the War on Drugs" was released on Tuesday.

It found that the number of African-American's in state prisons for a drug offense declined by more than 20 percent between 1999 and 2005, while the number of drug-related incarcerations of whites increased by more then 40 percent over the same period. Marc Mauer is author of the study. He's also the executive director of the Sentencing Project. And he is with us now in our Washington, D.C. studio. Marc, welcome, thank you for joining us.

Mr. MARC MAUER (Executive Director, Sentencing Project): Thanks. Good to be here.

MARTIN: What is driving these dramatic changes? It seems like we've been talking about sentencing disparities for years. And it seems like a very dramatic change. What's driving it?

Mr. MAUER: Well, yes, a couple of things stand out. First, crime rates have generally been declining in recent years. So it's possible that there is less of a law enforcement presence in some of these low-income African-American communities. Secondly the, you know, crack cocaine epidemic of the late '80s, early '90s, had waned by the mid-90s or so. And that's true across all racial ethnic groups. And to the extent that the war on drugs was so heavily prioritized on going after black communities and crack cocaine, some of that may have dropped off as well. We also see some positive changes. It's conceivable that some people who previously might have gone to prison are now going to treatment and avoiding a prison term. So it's probably a combination of things coming together here.

MARTIN: Just to set some parameters here, the research suggests that African-Americans represent about 12 percent of the drug-using population. But African-Americans make up about 45 percent of those who are currently in state prisons for drug-related offenses. Has it always been that way, as long as the Sentencing Project has been tracking these numbers?

Mr. MAUER: Well, we've seen tremendous racial disparities and probably more so, when it comes to drug offenses than any other type of offense. And what we know about drug law enforcement is that it's very discretionary. You know, if you have a middle class community and parents have a kid who has a drug problem, they don't call the police and say, would you please arrest my kid. They instead get their kid into the best treatment program they can find. They deal with it as a family problem, as a health problem.

In low-income communities, communities of color where those same resources may not be available, the problem is much more likely to be defined as a criminal justice problem. So, then we address it with police and prosecutors and prisons.

MARTIN: But what would account then for this increase of white prisoners?

Mr. MAUER: Well, what we're seeing in recent years, some of this may be due to methamphetamine use and methamphetamine sentencing policy. At least in a handful of states in the upper Midwest, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, we can track that there is increasing numbers of people going to prison from meth offenses. And these people are disproportionately white or Latino, but rarely African-American. Now this may not explain the whole national move, but at least it tells us that often this is very localized and here probably related to meth in part.

MARTIN: You talked about the role of the crack epidemic in swelling the ranks of people in prisons to begin with. Is it your sense that this epidemic has waned or has the law enforcement approach to it changed?

Mr. MAUER: Well I think it's a mixed picture. In some ways, the local law enforcement response may have changed. We may be seeing few arrests, or fewer of African-Americans. But if you look at the Federal system, which we did in the report, we find that there the numbers still continue to skyrocket and that the African-American number of drug offenders increased by about a third, as did the white and Latino drug offenders. So the overall state prison population drug offenses more or less stabilized, while the Federal prison population for drugs goes up by a third. Very dramatic contrast there.

MARTIN: Is there anything else you want to tell us about the Federal prison population? The report is mainly focused on state prisons.

Mr. MAUER: The critical issues in Federal are primarily the sentencing policies, the mandatory sentencing policies and especially involving crack cocaine. This has been the subject of much controversy since 1986, when these laws were adopted providing for mandatory five years in prison for possessing as little as five grams of crack cocaine that weighed about two sugar packets. Two years ago, the U.S. Sentencing Commission adjusted its guidelines to reduce the crack sentences somewhat.

But the critical issue is still the mandatory sentences that are driving these policies. And there's now increasing momentum in Congress to reconsider, possibly to equalize the penalties between crack cocaine and powder.

MARTIN: But the study was conducted between 1999 and 2005, which pre-dates the Sentencing Commission guidelines changing. And it also predates a recent issue in New York. The New York Governor David Paterson succeeded in negotiating with the legislation to finally change some of the country's strictest sentencing guidelines for low-level drug offenders. But all that happened after the study was concluded. So…

Mr. MAUER: Well, exactly right. Well, I think what we're seeing still in the Federal system it's the ongoing impact of the mandatory sentencing laws, which disproportionately apply to drug offenses, disproportionately African-Americans and Latinos in the Federal system. So it's possible we'll see some waning of that coming up, because of the Sentencing Commission changes. But until we address the overall mandatory penalties, which are the most severe in the Federal system, it's unlikely we'll see any real change there.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project and author of a new study about the racial dynamics of incarceration in drug crimes. You know, there are those of course who would argue that the reason the crime rate has dropped as dramatically as it has over the years is that a lot of these people are in prison.

Mr. MAUER: Well, you know, we've seen the prison population go up for more than 35 years now. And during that time, there have been periods when crime has gone up, there have been periods when crime has gone down. There's no strong and consistent relationship. And does prison have an impact on crime? Yes, it has some impact. You know, if we have a serial rapist who is apprehended and sentenced to prison, that community is a little bit safer because he or she is behind bars.

If we're talking about low-level drug offenses though, the impact of prison is very different. When we send somebody away for a drug offense, somebody has been selling drugs on the street corner, how long does it take until that person is replaced on that street corner? Well, it takes about 20 minutes in most neighborhoods. But as we've seen in the war on drugs, we've now got a half million people in our prisons and jails for drug offense. The deterrent effect certainly has not kicked in the way it was promised to.

MARTIN: We've talked about the role of methamphetamine that may or may not play in the prison population. We've talked about crack cocaine. What about marijuana, which I believe is still the most widely used illegal drug?

Mr. MAUER: Well exactly and the strange thing is that, you know, we still have record numbers of drug arrests. Increasingly since about 1990, marijuana has made up a rising proportion of all the drug offenses. More than 40 percent of all the 1.8 million drug offenses each year are from marijuana and most of those are for possession. Now in terms of how law enforcement resources and court resources are being used, we're spending billions of dollars processing what I think most people would agree is the sort of less severe type of drug cases.

You know, one may or may not think marijuana is a good drug or bad drug, but no one will question it's less harmful than heroin, cocaine, crack and things like that.

MARTIN: Oh, but I think the argument for this particular kind of law enforcement strategy has been that this is a gateway drug.

Mr. MAUER: Yeah, well the, the argument is out there.

MARTIN: Is that not a credible argument?

Mr. MAUER: Not very much, no. I mean the way that comes about is people say, well, look at somebody, the people used heroin, nine out of 10 of them originally used marijuana. But we really need to look the other way. Of every 100 people who use marijuana, how many go on to use heroin? And there the numbers are really very, very small.

MARTIN: You made the argument that incarceration policies really don't have that much effect on crime. You think it has some effect on crime. We're in difficult economic circumstances now. Some would argue that poverty, fear, anxiety, economic anxiety, drives the crime rate. Do you think that's true?

Mr. MAUER: I think it's really a question of how we respond to the economic crisis. You know, through the government stimulus package, what kinds of jobs are going to be created? You know, are they going to be jobs that people coming out of prison may have access to or could we do some training for them? Some people are talking about green jobs, which can be locally based, retrofitting homes, weatherization.

These are the kinds of things that people who otherwise might end up in the justice system could be readily trained for. So we can use this as an opportunity to try to reverse some of those long-term trends, particularly in low-income communities.

MARTIN: Overall, there are those who would argue that it's really time to stop putting so much emphasis on race. Is it still relevant?

Mr. MAUER: You know, I studied this from a quantitative point of view, but every time I go into a courtroom or prison system and look around, you don't need to be a sociologist to get the story. You know, we're talking about a sea of black and brown faces. And communities that believe the system isn't working for them, they're less likely to cooperate with law enforcement and with the courts. And then we don't have a very effective justice system.

MARTIN: And does this report indicate that at least in terms of the racial dynamics that the system is becoming more fair?

Mr. MAUER: The system is becoming slightly more fair, and that's encouraging. We still have a very long way to go.

MARTIN: Marc Mauer is the executive director of the Sentencing Project and author of book, "The Race to Incarcerate." His study, entitled "The Changing Racial Dynamics of the War on Drugs" was released earlier this week. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C., studios, and if you want to see the study in its entirety, we'll have a link on our Web site. Marc, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. MAUER: Thanks for having me.

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