In 1980, the number of people incarcerated in our nation’s prisons was 200,000. By the year 2000, the number was up to two million. This increase was not due to an increase in violent crime. Violent crime actually went down during this period. The dramatic increase in our prison population is a direct result of the “war on drugs.” We have the highest prison population of any country in the world, more than China, Iran or Russia. In Germany, 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children. In the United States we have 750 people in prison for every 100,000 adults and children. This is eight times that of Germany.
The crime rates in the United States have not been higher than those of other developed Western nations. Between 1960 and 1990 the crime rates in Germany, Finland and the United States were almost identical. But the prison population in the United States quadrupled during this time frame when the Finnish rate fell by 60 percent and the German rate stayed the same. We here in the United States have become much more punitive. Finland is looking pretty good.
This term “war on drugs” was coined by former President Ronald Reagan and reached its peak during former President Bill Clinton’s administration. The war wasn’t against dangerous drugs. In the 1990s, 80 percent of all drug arrests were for marijuana possession, a drug less harmful than tobacco or alcohol. Because this war continued, at the end of 2007 more than seven million Americans, or one in 31 adults, were behind bars, on probation or on parole.
The war on drugs really has little to do with public concern for drugs but much to do with race. In 1982 only 2 percent of the population thought drugs were a major issue. But the war on drugs has led to the mass incarceration of people of color. The war on drugs went to the inner cities and people of color became the poster children for drug users and dealers. African-Americans in the year 2000 constituted 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison when the majority of drug users and dealers nationwide were white. People of all races sell and use drugs at a similar rate with white youth being the most likely to use illegal drugs. White youth have about three times the number of drug-related emergency room visits as their African-American counterparts. But they are not arrested or prosecuted the same as black Americans.
Black Americans are disproportionately more likely to be arrested, convicted and more harshly sentenced than whites. We currently have a higher percentage of minorities in prison than South Africa did during apartheid. In 2006 one in every 14 black men was behind bars compared to one in 106 white men. All races commit crimes at about the same rate. Then the majority of our prison population should be white and not people of color. But our current system of enforcement views people of color as more likely to be criminals.
We need to examine the real reasons for our high prison population and its impact on Americans of color. Under the guise of being tough on crime we are turning our minority population into second-class citizens, just as the Jim Crow laws did in the South after the Civil War. It doesn’t make America look like the land of the free.
Jeff Blanck is an attorney in private practice in Reno. He is the chair of the Legal Redress Committee for the Reno/Sparks branch of the NAACP. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.