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New Report Finds Racial Disparity in Drug Sentencing

Nearly twice as many blacks are imprisoned for drug offenses than whites, even though studies show that there are five times more white drug users than black ones, according to a new study from Human Rights Watch. The report said African-Americans made up 62.7 percent of drug offenders sent to prison in 1996 -- the last year for which complete statistics were available -- while 36.7 percent were white. Some reasons noted in the report for the disparity include: sellers and users are easier to arrest in poor black neighborhoods because so much of the drug activity is conducted on the street; law enforcement agencies direct much of their resources to combating drug activity in black areas, rather than in white neighborhoods where drug sales and use tend to occur behind closed doors; and low-income African-Americans often cannot afford lawyers to win them more lenient sentences. Justice Department experts also say that while studies show there are five times as many white users of illegal drugs as black users, drug abuse among African-Americans tends to be more chronic and involve "harder" drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin.

For additional context on the role of race in drug sentencing, visit our issue guides on Illegal Drugs, Race, and Crime.

Public Opinion:
African-Americans are more likely to say that blacks are not treated fairly by the courts and that juries are not representative of the community
Poor and minority Americans are more likely to believe their communities face major drug problems
Poor and minority Americans are also more likely to fear that a family member may become addicted to drugs
Most blacks and substantial numbers of whites say the police and criminal justice system treat African-Americans more harshly

Fact File:
Number of drug arrests
Most drug arrests are for possession

Additional Information:
Quick Takes: Crime
Sources and Resources: Illegal Drugs
Notable and Newsworthy: Race

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