Report on Racial Disparity in Imprisonment of Drug Offenders

The Justice Policy Institute has a new report "The Vortex: The Concentrated Racial Impact of Drug Imprisonment and the Characteristics of Punitive Counties," on the racial disparity in the imprisonment of drug offenders.

The report confirms that African Americans are imprisoned in far greater numbers than whites.

Of 175,000 people sent to prison for drugs nationwide in 2002, over half were black, though blacks are 13 percent of the population.

It found no relationship between rates at which people are sent to prison for drug offenses and the rates at which people use drugs. The study said 9.2 percent of blacks use illegal drugs, compared with 8.1 percent of whites.


The county with the third worst ratio is Dane, Wisconsin, where 97 black drug offenders imprisoned for each white offender.

Also faring poorly: Cook County (Chicago), IL.

African-Americans in Cook County were imprisoned for drug offenses at 58 times the rate of white people -- the seventh-worst racial disparity among large counties nationwide, according to a new report.

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    Incorrect or Politically Incorrect? (none / 0) (#1)
    by TruthHurtzIndeed on Wed Dec 05, 2007 at 03:53:35 PM EST
    If these people are justly incarcerated (which might be true in most cases) what does this say about the population and the system that governs it?

    Are they ultimately responsible for their consequences or is there some checkerboard-hopscotch historical path that we can follow that will lead us back to someone else? Is it the game or the players or the rules?

    iow, is the problem that blacks and whites are unequally imprisoned when charged with identical crimes, or that blacks and whites are equally apprehended but unequally arrested and charged? Where does the inequity reside, or is it in all of the above?

    Also, what's the solution that you propose?

    Because, imo, the solution the LE agencies will enact, if they do anything at all, is that in addition to the blacks that are being incarcerated, more whites will be jailed as well, resulting in more incarcerations overall.

    Isn't the goal for fewer citizens be incarcerated, not more?

    A reasonable supposition is that all persons (none / 0) (#4)
    by JSN on Wed Dec 05, 2007 at 06:26:02 PM EST
    admitted to prison were booked one or more times (in most counties at the jail). Booking data is normally not available for statistical analysis so they used prison admission data, FBI arrest data and court case filings.

    I have a small amount  booking data for a few Iowa jails and the average probability that a booking will result in an admission to jail is about 4% with a range of 1% to 6%. The probability that a case filing will result in a prison admission is about 7% and the prison admission probabilities for revocation of probation, parole and work release are 7%, 35% and 37% respectively with more than half of the prison admissions the result of a revocation. The prison admission probabilities by race and ethnicity vary over a wide range from county to county and between judicial districts.

    In my county the augmentation of the percentage of Black jail inmates increased from 19% to 35% from booking until the end on the first week and stayed essentially constant after that. If that finding is representative then most of the augmentation of incarcerated Blacks is established at arrest and by the decision to detain after initial appearance and the inability to post bond.


    JSN (none / 0) (#5)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Thu Dec 06, 2007 at 04:38:57 PM EST
    Unfortunately, and seriously, I have no idea what you just said.

    Everyone who is admitted to prison has been (none / 0) (#6)
    by JSN on Thu Dec 06, 2007 at 09:06:41 PM EST
    booked (usually at the county jail). There are counties where 1% of the bookings result in a prison admission and counties were the rate is about 5%. There are counties where 45% of the prison admissions are minorities and counties with no minority admissions. There are large differences in minority admissions for counties in the same judicial district where the judges are the common factor.

    I think the circumstances responsible for large minority prison admissions are established at the county level within the first week and the most important stages are arrest, detention in jail after initial appearance and inability to make bond. I don't think plea bargaining and sentencing significantly alter the race/ethnic distribution. My conclusion are based on a very small amount of data from a few counties and are not representative because local circumstances are very important (such as the intersection of two interstate highways or a small county with a large packing plant).

    I would like to know why Blacks are more likely

    1. be arrested?
    2. to be charged with a felony?
    3. be detained in jail after initial appearance?
    4. are less likely to have their bond reduced?

    It is a very complex process and hope this clarifies things.

    Thanks, it makes more sense now. (none / 0) (#7)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Fri Dec 07, 2007 at 12:52:41 PM EST
    Assuming all of 1-4 are factual (ie., each one is a true apples to apples comparison of blacks v. whites) I ask you the same question as the one I asked J - what is the solution?

    It should be possible to prove or disprove 1 to 4 (none / 0) (#8)
    by JSN on Sat Dec 08, 2007 at 09:11:12 AM EST
    with booking data from more jails.  If they are true I think 3 & 4 are unintended consequences of a procedures used to estimate the risks of flight and to public safety. They are discriminating against people with weak or no ties to the community and at the same time they are discriminating against poor people and minorities.

    If I had more data I would be more confident about this but it appears that from booking data the offense profile (list of most frequent offenses) is different for Black and Whites in that Blacks are more likely to be booked for felonies and there is a shorter list of misdemeanor charges for Blacks than for Whites.  In other words I think the behavior of the Black and White offenders is different and I wish I was able to be more confident about that finding but we don't have very many felonies or Blacks.

    The offense profile for Blacks is significantly different from those of Whites and Hispanics for those admitted to prison but over half of the admissions are revocations of probation, parole and work release so the most serious charge and the reason for admission to prison are significantly decoupled. I think it is easier to get to the root of the problem using booking and prison admission data for a single county. However it is difficult to get access to booking data.

    In an attempt to answer your question I think the Black poverty rate has either stayed constant or increased and the number of barriers to reentry has increased so the unemployment rates for probationers and parolees are twice and four times normal. That is just one factor but research has consistently shown that stable employment has a high correlation with low crime rates (I know correlation is not causation).


    Racial disparities exist (none / 0) (#3)
    by Deconstructionist on Wed Dec 05, 2007 at 05:04:55 PM EST

      and I do believe racism is a significant contributor to the disparity, but "studies" such as this are worthless when they deliberately set ip a false construct to study.

    "It found no relationship between rates at which people are sent to prison for drug offenses and the rates at which people use drugs."

      So what? The relationship to be probed is, of course,  the correlation between people sent to prison for drug offenses and the rates at which people sell drugs. One could be charitable and conclude the people conducting the study are quite stupid or one could be cynical and question their objectivity and reliability.

    We need to distinguish (none / 0) (#9)
    by Deconstructionist on Sat Dec 08, 2007 at 09:34:45 AM EST
      between IMPRISONMENT which is imposed as a sentence for an offense conviction and JAILING which is imposed in lieu of release pending disposition.

      I believe race does play a role in both but to make any menanigful analysis we need to be comparing apples with apples and oranges with oranges.

      When looking at "pre-trial release" after controlling for offense severity  we can, roughly, posit two "reasons" for incarceration rate differentials: 1) the imposition of greater conditions on release; and 2) the relative ability of people to meet similar conditions imposed. Those are really different issues than the sentences imposed upon people for convctions.

      As for Sarc's questions. they are good ones but by their very nature really not amenable to statistical analysis. We simply can't have anything but impressionistic views as to whether blacks and whites are apprehended in similar or different for the crimes they commit. By definition there are no "statistics" as to the  race of people who committed offenses for which no one is charged.

      In my view, and this may be controversial and i have no statistics to back it up,  a large part of the reason blacks are "over-represented" in jails and prisons is that law enforcement t all levels places the highest emphasis on "solving" crimes which  a higher proportion of black people do in fact commit-- namely TRAFFICKING in controlled substances on the streets.

      There are many reasons why this is a priority and not all of them are racist ones but it does have have a disparate impact on blacks.

      Quite probably the only offenses that blacks commit at a significantly  higher rate than whites are drug trafficking ones and our law enforcement agencies devote a huge proportion of their efforts at those offenses- AND they are generally much easier to "solve"  and accumulate evidencer sufficient to convict through investigation and undercover operations than crimes ranging from burglary  to fraud to tax evasion to .....


    I agree that jail and prisons have different (5.00 / 1) (#10)
    by JSN on Sat Dec 08, 2007 at 11:12:31 AM EST
    functions. Of those booked into jail 68% are released prior or to or after initial appearance, 16% within a week after expiration of a short sentence or after bond reduction and another 8% are released for various reasons within three weeks. Up to 6% leave jail on expiration of a jail sentence and about 3.5% (the range is 1% to 7%) by transfer to prison on conviction on a new charge or a revocation.

    The inmates in jail for more than three weeks are under enormous pressure to plea bargain (that means they have to plead guilty to something) and the most serious booked charge and the charge they are convicted of can and do differ (up or down in severity). A number of studies have shown that persons detained in jail are more likely to be convicted and I suspect they are not as likely to be placed on probation. If you are poor, addicted to alcohol/drugs and/or mentally ill and you commit an aggravated misdemeanor or felony you will probably end up in prison.

    Local circumstances are very important but in general if the police get a large number of reports of crimes or calls for assistance from a particular neighborhood they increase their presence in that neighborhood. In my view the main advantage is they reduce their response time. The increased presence and shorter response time results in more arrests. In my community the pin maps for calls for service to the police show high concentrations in low rent housing areas. Low rent suggests low income and high poverty rates.