July 2, 2013

Newly released federal data suggests that a disturbing trend has developed in regards to drug arrests in America. The data indicates that in 2010 alone, black Americans were arrested for simple possession and related marijuana charges at rates between three and eight times higher than white Americans were. This data is particularly disturbing given that the rates at which black and white Americans tend to possess and use marijuana are roughly the same.

Federal law only recently began to address the racial disparity in sentencing for cocaine-related offenses. It now seems that reform is needed in other areas of federal drug law enforcement. If a primary goal of the criminal justice system is to be consistent in application and general enforcement of the law, then these statistics strongly indicate that some mechanism within the system is broken and doing a disservice to the system’s larger goals.

After reviewing the data, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) constructed a report analyzing it which was released this month. The lead author of the work is the director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. He recently explained that “We found that in virtually every county in the country, police have wasted taxpayer money enforcing marijuana laws in a racially biased manner.”

As the public’s attitudes toward marijuana shift in favor of legalization in certain contexts, legislators and law enforcement will likely slowly begin to focus away from cracking down on offenses like simple possession. But for many reasons, this shift in focus does not delegitimize the fact that reform is needed urgently. Any time one population is held accountable for criminal activity in far greater numbers than another population similarly engaged in illegal behavior, discrimination threatens the integrity of the system as a whole. For that reason alone, this issue is in need of immediate reform.

Source: The New York Times, “Blacks Are Singled Out for Marijuana Arrests, Federal Data Suggests,” Ian Urbina, June 3, 2013

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