Narrowing the Racial Divide in the War on Drugs

More than four decades have passed since the War on Drugs began, and America has been injured -- but the damage has not been solely the result of drug addiction or abuse. While the War on Drugs has done little to curtail our national drug problem, it has done everything to exacerbate our deep racial inequalities. Through the War on Drugs, America has waged a racist and inflexible campaign of apprehension, sentencing, and incarceration against millions of black and Latino Americans. These are not subjective claims. Just look at the facts, and it becomes clear that America's egregious rates of incarceration of blacks and Latinos stem from the enforcement of unfair sentencing laws -- laws that are grounded in racist policy, and that are desperately in need of reform.

The numbers on incarceration are stark: Today, 1 in 15 of black men and 1 in 36 of Latino men are imprisoned, as compared to 1 in 106 of white men. These disparities mean that although people of color are around 30 percent of the U.S. population, they constitute 60 percent of the prison population (source: Center for American Progress).

How did these immense disparities come to be? It's certainly not a matter of who is committing the crime. When it comes to drug use, for instance, 20 percent of whites have tried cocaine, while only 10 percent of blacks and Latinos have used it. Whites also use marijuana, painkillers, meth, and other drugs at higher rates than people of color -- and yet black individuals are arrested for drug possession more than three times as often as whites are (source: Huffington Post). Part of the problem, of course, lies in the pervasiveness of racial profiling in law enforcement. In 2007, for instance, a Department of Justice study found that blacks and Hispanics were three times more likely to be searched by police during a traffic stop, even though they were less likely than whites to be found with illegal drugs.

Yet even when we exclude racial profiling from the equation, we find another major culprit behind the mass incarceration of blacks and Latinos: racist sentencing laws. One such notorious law is the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which imposed far harsher penalties on the possession of crack, used mostly by black Americans, than it did on the possession of powder cocaine, used mostly by white Americans. Before the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA), one had to possess 100 times the amount of cocaine -- 500 grams -- as of crack -- five grams -- before triggering a mandatory minimum sentence of five-years in jail. While the FSA did reduce the cocaine vs. crack weight-ratio disparity from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1, the old law put thousands of non-violent offenders in jail -- 80 percent of whom are black (source: ThinkProgress). Sadly, such unfair laws have already destroyed countless black and Latino lives.

It's grim stuff, but thankfully Americans are fighting back against the regime of racial profiling, racist sentencing, and unequal mass incarceration. In California, we are working with partners to pass the California Fair Sentencing Act, or SB 1010, a law that would eliminate the unfair disparities in crack and cocaine sentencing. This would be a big win for racial equality in California, where 98 percent of those jailed for the possession of crack are people of color. As of August 21, SB 1010 has been passed by the California Assembly and Senate and now sits on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk, waiting to be signed into law. We urge the governor to do the right thing. The Latino and African-American communities will celebrate a victory for fairness, and then we'll get right back to work fighting other discriminatory sentencing laws that disproportionately condemn people of color to jail and life as second-class citizens.