The Disproportionate Impact of Current Drug Policy on
Racial Minorities and the Poor
The King County Bar Association is troubled by the mounting evidence of over-representation of minorities and low-income people in Washington’s criminal justice system, especially in connection with drug offenses. The KCBA Drug Policy Project’s Task Force on Racial and Class Disparity is undertaking an in-depth analysis of this important issue, and the Task Force will soon release its report and recommendations.
Many state and national studies have identified disproportionate representation throughout the criminal justice process. In Washington, for instance, the Sentencing Guidelines Commission reported that, in FY2000, African-Americans in King County were sentenced for a drug felony at a rate of 25 times more than Caucasians. The Task Force report is exploring some of the structural factors underlying such disparities and examining points of discretion that arise in the criminal process that can directly affect over-representation, including policing and pre-trial release decisions, access to treatment or sentencing alternatives and charging practices.
The King County Bar Association is also concerned that all members of society trust in the fairness of the criminal justice system. A 1999 Washington state court survey found strong differences among different racial and ethnic groups in the perception of fairness of treatment by the police and the courts. Some tools of the “War on Drugs,” such as profiling and selective drug enforcement, have engendered adversarial relationships between the police and some communities or segments of communities. Even well-intentioned and appropriate police actions have strained relations with these communities promised. The KCBA is exploring how the criminal justice system may be able to regain the confidence of disaffected groups.
Quick statistical summary:
Washington State - African Americans constitute about 3 percent of the state population; however, 51 percent of those incarcerated for drug offenses are African American. Only four other states have a higher rate than Washington State of incarcerating African-American men.
(National Corrections Reporting Program, Human Rights Watch, 1996)
City of Seattle - African-Americans constitute about 8 percent of Seattle's population yet 57 percent of adult drug arrests in 1999 were African-American.
(A Window of Opportunity: Addressing the Complexities of the Relationship Between Drug Enforcement and Racial Disparity in Seattle, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University (April 2001).