Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Challenge DA candidates to say what they would do to reduce racial disparities in drug imprisonment

I wanted to post on this topic yesterday for MLK Day, but an opportunity to spend the day with my granddaughter put off this editorial's more timely publication.

As we contemplate the upcoming primary season and head toward the beginning of Black History Month, it's worth recalling some contemporary black history - really everyone's history - regarding continued discriminatory outcomes in the criminal justice system.

In December, the Justice Policy Institute published an analysis of incarceration rates for every US county with 250,000 people or more. (See earlier Grits coverage.) The report revealed two key trends in Texas regarding incarceration of African Americans for drug crimes: Wide disparities between the number of blacks sent to prison compared to whites, and impressive differences in the size of disparities among jurisdictions, including some of Texas more "liberal" areas evincing the highest differences.

For convenience, I republish here the table I compiled from JPI's Texas data ("rates" given are per 100,000 people):

First, look at Texas' two largest cities, Dallas and Houston: Harris County sends black folks to prison on drug charges at 19 times the rate it sends white people, while in Dallas the ratio is just 9-1. Both cities have similar crime rates (near the bottom among major cities). Both have large central city black populations.

What accounts for the difference? I believe it's a function of decisions by local officials - mostly police deployment decisions (and possibly racial profiling) combined with district attorneys' charging practices. (I'm interested, though, in hearing others' opinions in the comments about reasons for such high and wide ranging disparities.)

Similarly, Travis County (Austin) has an amazing 31-1 ratio. (That is NOT a typo!) While in my experience there's no shortage of white drug offenders in Austin, clearly nearly all the enforcement resources go toward policing and prosecuting drug crimes in the black community, which makes up about 11% of the overall county population.

Whatever the reason, it's not simply because black folks do drugs more often. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2005 illegal drug use rates were 8.1 percent for whites, 7.2 percent for Hispanics, and 8.7 percent for blacks. These modest differences do NOT account for the differences in imprisonment documented by JPI.

Indeed some counties with (relatively) lower black/white ratios, like Denton and Tarrant, were that way in part because of higher than average rates for incarcerating whites.

Both Travis and Harris counties are in the midst of heated primary races to fill their District Attorneys' slots. I'd like to see every candidate for DA in those counties confronted with these numbers and asked point blank: What do you think are the reasons for these disparities and what if anything will you do to reduce them?

Speaking as a Travis County voter, our absurdly high rate of incarcerating black folks for drugs is unacceptable to me and I'd like for somebody in officialdom - at APD, the DA's office, somebody - to explain why that is occurring. With a month to go before Texas votes, there's plenty of time to demand that DA candidates face questions about these disparate outcomes before voters go to the polls.

Even better, I'd like to vote for a DA candidate who has a plan to change that discriminatory outcome. I wonder who that might be?


Anonymous said...

I read an article in the Statesman not too long ago that said that Travis County was the only county in Texas that was taking advantage of a new law that allowed marajuana possession under 4oz to be a ticket instead of an automatic arrest. Hopefully that's a start.

Anonymous said...

You read wrong.

Anonymous said...

I've always thought poverty was a factor in incarceration. Can the data factor income, or indigent defendants?

Ceterus parabus, what do the numbers say about race?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I agree more research is needed, but at 31 to 1, I feel comfortable saying the ratio should be lower in Austin right now. I think that ratio is "irresponsible" and cannot be justified on its face.

As for the first commenter, that new law only affects misdemeanors, not felony drug sentences, and those ticketed are still punished at the higher levels, they just don't go to jail pretrial. Unfortunately it wouldn't affect these numbers.

Robert, the report is linked but they don't supply the demographic data you're seeking. Tony Fabelo did more on that topic for Houston only, though, see here, and found many neighborhood level indicators.

DAC said...

Hidalgo County, oops. Give me an easy conviction and I will give you a long sentence.....

Of course overall, we are at the bottom of the admission rate.

Anonymous said...

Considering the origins of the DrugWar, should the overly high rate of incarceration of minorities be all that surprising? It's only the end result...the intended end result...of a policy whose roots are plunged deep in a racist foundation.

Given who promoted the first drug laws - and why they promoted them - the need to examine those laws in light of their origins and intent becomes even more imperative...regardless of whose birthday is coming up.

Anonymous said...

What we know is that Blacks are more likely to be sent to prison for drug crimes.
1) Are they more likely to commit drug crimes? I don't know but probably not.
2) Are they more likely to be arrested for drug crimes? Yes.
3) Are they more likely to be convicted of a drug crime? Probably yes.
4) Are they more likely to be sentenced to prison rather than placed on probation? Probably yes.
5) If they are on parole/probation are they more likely to be revoked? I don't know but probably yes.
6) When they are released from prison will they be able to find work other than selling drugs? Probably not.

Poor people are more likely to be detained in jail after arrest and booking because they can't bond out. A number of studies have show that people detained for pretrial are more likely to be convicted.
There are also some studies that suggest persons detained in jail are more likely to be sent to prison instead of being placed on probation. I don't think that finding is well established but it does make sense because a person who is poor risk for pretrial release is not a good candidate for probation.

Anonymous said...

Grits, are you saying that the disparity is racially discriminatory? If so, what empirical evidence do you have to back up your claim? Perhaps it is based on class rather than race. Is that what you meant to say?

Anonymous said...

Scott, disparity in outcomes does not equal discrimination. Over-representation does not equal discrimination. You're alleging bias at each decision point along the processing continuum. I don't believe that's the case. I think we need to look at over-involvement given the levels of seriousness and PRIOR records. Seems you're feelings about the criminal justice process is purely anecdotal.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"what empirical evidence do you have to back up your claim? Perhaps it is based on class rather than race."

To take Austin, the PD I probably know best, I think it's pretty strong "empirical evidence that there's a 31-1 ratio of drug incarceration rates, particularly when compared to the federal stats that say drug use is close to the same across races. Though I don't have the study with me offhand, I've seen research that says most people purchase drugs from dealers of their own race.

That tells me that enforcement resources are apparently being overallocated toward a narrow class of drug users in certain neighborhoods, letting other categories of users (and dealers) go free.

To 3:32 who writes, "Seems you're feelings about the criminal justice process is purely anecdotal."

I didn't raise ANY anecdotes at all! My critique was statistical. If you want me to speak anecdotally, however, I've lived for 18 years in a predominantly black neighborhood (gentrifying now, but pretty rough over most of that time), and based on that experience I don't believe for a second that black folks in Austin are dealing drugs at 31X the rate of whites. A LOT of white folks use and sell drugs in this town.

To continue on APD, when we first ran racial profiling numbers statewide they had among the highest rates of "consent searching" blacks - i.e., asking for consent to search when there otherwise would be no probable cause. Blacks were consent searched more than five times as often as whites, we discovered. To their credit, after the report came out Austin began requiring written consent.

So we've got an agency that was at the top of the disparity list in racial profiling data disparities, and is near the top of the list on drug incarceration disparities. If you accept the federal figures that drug use is mostly constant across races (and God knows there are plenty of white drug users in Austin), then there must be some other reason. Race and class are the two that immediately spring to mind, but I don't believe class alone can't explain those disparities. No way.

I'm willing to accept there may be other explanations, though I'm skeptical: What do y'all think it is, if not police and prosecutor decisions to over-enforce these crimes on particular populations or neighborhoods? Following Occam's razor, I've suggested the most obvious hypothesis. What other explanations might fit the data?

Anonymous said...

Ok, here's three hypotheses:

1. Racism dominates adult processing

2. Black male adults commit more drug crime

3. Over-involvement times class interaction

Gritsforbreakfast said...

What do you mean by "racism dominates processing." Depending on the definition of "processing," that cold explain it right there.

On # 2, though, the federal stats say blacks use drugs at around the same rate as everybody else, so I disagree that we may conclude blacks are 31 times more likely to commit a drug crime. That's particularly erroneous if my memory is correct (and I think it is) about folks tending to use dealers of the same race.

I don't know what are the exact mechanics of what's going on, but the outcomes are too stark to ignore. If Denton County can live with a 3-1 ratio, it's not outrageous to ask Travis to reduce its 31-1 ratio, or at least explain why its so high compared to other Texas cities.

Anonymous said...

So, you believe in arrest quotas? If Austin is 40% white, 30% black, 30 hispanic, as an example, there should be parity in drug arrests?

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry. Racism in processing to mean, bias at each decision point along the continuum (arrest through conviction).

Anonymous said...


Why is there no data on Hispanics?

From work I have done with Iowa data there is more than one factor responsible for general racial disparity not just drugs and one is the deployment of police resources (for example informers) as you have noted. I found a four to one ratio in disparity from county to county and have concluded that local conditions are very important. I also think there may be positive feedback in the system that may be related to recidivism that can cause large variations.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

No, I don't believe in arrest quotas. But I believe when arrests are so far out of line with evidence of who is offending, it deserves redress.

Wanting the ratio to be less than 31-1 isn't the same as saying arrests must match population. DWI arrests don't match the population numbers, but they're a LOT closer to doing so.

I also think that, if this is the outcome, officials must be able to articulate a good REASON why disparities are so high that matches the evidence. Just saying "that's the way it is" isn't good enough, not at 31-1, or at least not in my book.

On Hispanics, the study only analyzed black and white. I don't know why, but there are many problems with the data that may explain it. Hispanic is an ethnicity, by definition, not a race, so the numbers cross over with the other categories and make it hard to analyze.

Also, in Texas Latinos are incarcerated at less than their percentage of the population. The overincarceration problem (outside of immigration detention) is really mostly aimed at blacks, and as these numbers show mostly done through the drug laws.

Anonymous said...

I am concerned about the validity of the empirical data being gathered. I know for a fact that much of the data collected by TYC was skewed. I attempted to report this to a superior and she asked me what empirical data was. I had a difficult time explaining and am not sure she ever understood.
I am interested in the truth. I do believe class is an issue, and I believe race is an issue, however I think there are many other variables that warrant more investigation.
It is difficult to even the playing field in this area. For instance, I believe whites are more likely to be pedophiles, blow up high schools and be serial killers. There is data to support my beliefs. I would not want any of those people to be released to even the field.
I do believe we are fighting a losing battle in the war against drugs. There are so many officers out there routinely violating people's rights because they can. Many people believe that they must consent to illegal searches. I give my clients cards to present to officers stating their rights.
I hope we can find better ways to handle drug offenders in the future that are more beneficial and equitible.