Is the drug war leveling out?

By Michelle Chen Apr 15, 2009

The latest trend lines suggest the war on drugs is becoming perversely more equal. Between 1999 and 2005, the number of white drug offenders in state prisons rose about 43 percent, while the number of Black offenders declined by 22 percent. According to the Sentencing Project, some of the change may be due to the intensifying market for crystal meth, which, in contrast to crack cocaine, is associated with white and rural populations. The Washington Post reported (cautiously) on some of Sentencing Project executive director Mark Mauer’s explanations, including possible an evolution in modus operandi as well as the disturbing theory that the drug war might finally be starting to bleed out the hardest-hit communities.

Mauer also hypothesized that drug dealers might have shifted from open-air crack cocaine markets to dealing indoors, making them harder for police to catch. And he speculated that because so many African American men have been incarcerated, there are fewer on the street to be arrested.

But Mauer also offers a less grim hypothesis: drug courts, locally administered programs that divert offenders into treatment rather than incarceration, could be having an impact on drug-related crime, especially in urban communities of color. The Sentencing Project has also released an analysis of drug court programs across the country revealing that while it’s difficult to assess overall effectiveness, the model could lay a foundation for saner drug policies:

After two decades of implementation, research shows that many drug courts reduce recidivism and save taxpayer dollars. Evidence from a number of studies (collecting data from between 1 and 95 drug courts) shows that drug court graduates are rearrested less than comparison groups The reduction in rearrest rates is the primary contributor to cost-savings for the majority of reporting drug courts.

There will always be cyclical arguments for “getting tough” on criminals through police and prisons. And it should be noted that Blacks are still disproportionately impacted by drug-war incarceration. But ironically, the demographic shift in the offender population, toward a more realistic reflection of the country as a whole, might raise consciousness about inherently irrational crime policies. As the collateral consequences creep beyond communities that are easy to vilify and silence, perhaps the political establishment will have a harder time justifying its drug war. Image: San Francisco Chronicle, Lacy Atkins