busted: america's war on marijuana
Intended and Unintended Consequences: State Racial Disparities in Imprisonment by Marc Mauer,  Assistant Director, The Sentencing Project Copyright 1997, The Sentencing Project [The Sentencing Project is a national non-profit organization which promotes sentencing reform  and conducts research on criminal justice issues.]

Since detailed inmate survey data for recent years are only available for 1986 and 1991, we need to rely on these years to suggest trends which may influence current dynamics. As can be seen, the absolute increase for violent offenders was virtually identical for blacks and whites (31,000 and 33,000 respectively), but for drug offenses, the black increase outpaced that for whites by 66,000 to 15,000, a 465.5% just five years. Absent data regarding the racial breakdown of persons involved in drug crimes, these trends may reflect the impact of "drug war" policies in inner cities and the fact that when discretion is more prevalent in the criminal justice system, minorities may suffer greater consequences.

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Finally, a look at the numbers of persons sentenced to prison from 1988 to 1992 (the most recent year for which data are available) in Table 7 again shows substantial increases in prison sentences for both violent offenders and drug offenders. Here, too, while the proportional increase for violent offenses is relatively similar for blacks and whites, the increase for black drug offenders is dramatically higher, 94.1% compared to 35.1%. The pattern for the number of commitments for violent offenses is consistent with data that show that while African Americans are disproportionately arrested for violent crimes, these proportions have not changed substantially for twenty years.

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In Minnesota, the state with the highest ratio of racial disparity, sentencing trends over the past decade suggest that blacks have been arrested and received prison terms for violent offenses at increasingly higher rates than whites, but dramatically more so for drug offenses. For violent offenses, the increase in felony sentences for blacks outpaced that for whites by 287% to 40% for murder, 316% to 68% for assault, and 121% to a decline of 5% for robbery between 1984 and 1994. For drug offenses, though, the black rate increased by 1096% compared to 71% for whites.

 

 
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