Does race change the way people discuss drug crimes?

The push for prison reform and racial justice have moved together along parallel lines. A recent study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that about 21 percent of all federal drug offenders are white, while 38 percent are black and 37 percent are Latino. Just weeks ago, about 6,000 inmates were released from federal custody, as part of a decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to cut prison overcrowding and nonviolent drug offenses by a 2 year average. A recent article by The New York Times found a correlation between an increase of heroin use among suburban whites and a less stringent war on drugs.

Nazgol Ghandnoosh and Ashley Nellis, researchers at The Sentencing Project, write:

The War on Drugs was set in motion in the mid-1980s and urged a punitive, criminal justice response to the crack cocaine epidemic in particular. For decades since, states and the federal government enacted stiff prison penalties that were disproportionately applied to low-income African Americans in urban areas. These policies swelled prisons, deepened racial tensions, and fragmented families and communities.

Americans are once again concerned about the pains of addiction with the growing abuse of prescription medications and the related rise of heroin. Since 2000, heroin-related deaths have quadrupled, and between 2006 and 2013 alone, the number of first time heroin users nearly doubled from 90,000 to 169,000. This time, though, the focus is on the blight in primarily white suburban and rural communities. And this time, political leaders including President Obama are emphasizing drug treatment rather than criminal punishment.

It is hard not to conclude from these divergent trajectories that race and class significantly shape drug policy priorities. Indeed, researchers have shown that when white Americans associate crime with people of color, they are more supportive of punitive criminal justice policies.

But it’s important to recognize that, even though we seem to be reorienting many of our criminal justice responses, components of the drug war rage on. In 2014, police officers made 1.5 million drug arrests and over 300,000 people were in U.S. prisons for a drug conviction. Enforcement continues to disproportionately target people of color: almost two thirds of drug prisoners are black or Latino.

Even for heroin, the public health approach has been limited to certain users. Louisiana and Kentucky have increased sentences for sellers. And prosecutors across the country are levying murder charges against people whose drug sale resulted in a lethal overdose. These convictions can carry decades-long sentences for people who are sometimes addicts themselves.

In 2009, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske retired the drug war ideology, explaining: “We’re not at war with people in this country.” His successor, Michael Botticelli, advances a public health approach and is himself in recovery. But we remain far from aligning our policies with our vision for effectively grappling with substance abuse.

Today’s Question: Does race change the way people discuss drug crimes?

  • PauLj

    The race of the interlocutor might determine if drug crimes are thought of as our problem or their problem. The race of the criminal might influence perceptions on if the crime is characterlogical or sociological. But it is probably more a question class anyway.

  • Feel the bern and be burned

    Here is another question to fuel issues with race and discrimination and keep the pot stirred for political correctness as election year nears. Where is the data on asians locked up for drug pushing? Why do these stories focus only on white and black and hispanic? The real FREEKIN question MN should be discussing is Should we impeach Franken and Klobuchar for ignoring the will of the people with wanting to fast ship in Syrians? Oh no- wait! Our own admins at U of MN can’t get their PC head out of their but when this happens: U of MN refuses to honor 9-11 victims”excuse the rejection of a resolution to remember the day that nearly 3,000 innocent people were murdered. It is not Islamophobic or racist to pause and reflect on a day that fundamentally changed the country. If 3,000 people were killed in attack committed by white militant Presbyterians (or some other denomination), there would still be nationwide shock, outrage, sadness, and remembrance on the anniversary of the date. The victims of 9/11 aren’t remembered because they were killed by Muslims–they are remembered because they were killed by terrorists, who happened to be Muslim.

  • Sue de Nim

    Of course it does. Whether the bias is conscious or unconscious, it affects the discussion. And any effort to avoid racial bias introduces another bias into thought processes. And when race is ignored, it becomes the proverbial elephant in the room. In order to discuss such issues productively, it is necessary to be deliberate about taking race into account.

    Specifically with regard to this issue, the evidence is fairly strong that the “war on drugs” in the ’80s was racially motivated. Politicians got white votes by vowing to get tough on crime, with “crime” being a code word for race.

    • whitedoggie44

      Then again Mayor de Blasio in New York insured he received votes from minorities when he promised to let up on petty crime. Proof it happens on both sides of the political divide.

    • Yanotha Twangai

      It goes back farther than that, at least as far as the “law and order” platform Nixon ran on.

    • Abdi,PhDUM

      Crime as a code word was grabbed, invented by the Progressives..everyone knows that, as its been all over the media for years. Social Justice ideas are simply a form to push for socialist ideals to have government control every facet of your life while creating a new victim mentality to snare low functioning voters for their use. America is a land of laws, and those laws mean every one is held to the same standard, equal Justice for all, regardless of color or religion or sex.

      • Yanotha Twangai

        If “every one is held to the same standard,” why are Blacks and Hispanics over-represented in drug convictions, even though studies consistently show whites use drugs at the same or higher rates? Denial of the reality does not change the fact that drug laws are enforced in a racially biased manner.

  • Martha

    No regular person wastes time discussing drug crimes and if its a race biased issue. It is politicians that bring this up to raise victimhood supporters, more voters. Sit around any caribou or Starbucks or student union and no one, seriously no one is starting conversations on this topic. Obama releases federal convicts and those inmates were not there for simple drug possession; their record might show that but the original charges are felony gun possession, theft, assault. They plea bargain down and take the 2-5 yrs in federal prison vs. 10-20 yrs. Why are we not concerned about the real threat of Gitmo terrorists, worst of the lot, getting released by Obama’s crew this month?

    Re: Q of the Day, what about instead of drug crimes and race, we look at police officer murders by the heritage ‘race ‘ of the involved criminal..ouch_ or what about sex crimes on women under the age of 21 and race.
    Or the real issue with drug crimes is that yes, it has in 58.8% of child neglect and abuse is from the hands of drug addict mothers or babysitters. Another 20% is from drug addict and alcohol influenced fathers.

    • Yanotha Twangai

      I guess that makes me an irregular person in your opinion.

      • Yanotha Twangai

        OTOH, I don’t consider it a “waste” of time to talk about the way things should be but are not. I consider it good citizenship.

  • LouiseDeMint

    Yes, race comes to play any time we have political debate and the progressives are pushing the race card. Wow, as a bi-racial citizen, I am appalled with these type of questions. MPR throws several daily questions in a row on RACE issues as if its 1960 all over again. Where is Black Lives Matter radicals to protest when three black cops are shot at and two dead? Nope_ doesn’t count if its a white criminal or black criminal as long as its a cop victim_ I am so disgusted and I blame Obama’s years of dividing the country and stirring up exaggerated race issues for his political party’s tactic. Will he do the same for Syrian “refugees?” Probably since he can’t look past his own self absorbed Yes, fanaticism. As they say, “A fanatic doesn’t have an opinion, the opinion has him!”

    • kevins

      Why do you put the word refugees in quotes? Just askin’

    • Yanotha Twangai

      If Obama is “stirring up exaggerated race issues for his political party’s tactic,” why has he been criticized so often for not talking more about race? It’s only right-wing fanatics, for whom the truth appears to be irrelevant, who perceive him to be pushing race issues.

    • Sue de Nim

      Seems to me it’s not that “progressives” keep playing the “race card” but that reactionaries keep playing the “playing the race card” card to stifle conversation about important social issues.

      • LouiseDeMint

        Stifle important social issues? Are you kidding????? ISIS has grown to a worldwide threat, millions of refugees-the largest crisis since WWII, hundreds of thousand Syrians barrel bombed while America stood silent, Russia invades Crimea untouched, Iran fires nuke capable missile the day after signing the agreement, North Korea expands its missile capability, Boko Haram kidnaps and rapes hundreds of girls while Michelle Obama tweets ” “Remember our girls” oh yeah, that’s helpful while her husband golfs. Democrat congress all vote NO to enacting Kate’s Law that would curb criminal repeat offender illegals and protect our women from rapists, Franken continues his incompetent role, Dayton takes Obama’s stance and denigrates police by voicing support over Black Lives matter crap..and you want to discuss burning social issues of race and drug crimes? I thought LSD went out of favor in the 70’s. As a half Korean, natural born citizen of this great country, I am so sick of this so called victimhood. I am ashamed we have a deviding President that is so pathetic to go before the world stage and say the massive Paris attacks were a “setback” My good lord, imagine if The President of France called our 911 just a setback.

        If you want to trust the President on what he says? Look at the guy who set himself on fire_ started the Arab Spring. We run guns out of Benghazi and we fuel the ISIS army. He says we can’t screen refugees for ISIL threat..really How many ISIl members are Christian? Screen that! Obama says his strategy is working the day before Paris. Where did French jets get the coordinates to bom the next day? They got those targets from OUR intelligence. So why did we sit on those targets> useless and no wonder the majority has had enough and are looking at Trump or any other as long as they are not a progressive whiner with no backbone. Recall Obama said that Benghazi was from a You tube.
        Social issue that!

        • Sue de Nim

          The fact that other issues are important also does not mean that issues of racial injustice are not. As a “half Korean,” you aren’t likely to have experiences such as being stopped for “driving while Black” or being tailed by store security guards when you’re minding your own business, so wouldn’t have personal experience with the specific racial prejudices that underlie the unjust, inequitable enforcement of drug laws in this country. As for the rest of your misinformed rant, it’s a misinformed rant.

  • SueMinGersomEsq

    Enforcement continues to disproportionately target people of color: almost two thirds of drug prisoners are black or Latino. The term ” to target” shows the bias so plainly. Could it be that more minority folks use hard drugs and do more hard drug crimes with guns than asians and whites?

    • Yanotha Twangai

      It could be, but it isn’t.