Race and Inequality

Examining Racial Disparities in Drug Arrests

Ojmarrh Mitchell
Associate Professor of Criminology, University of South Florida

Key Findings

  • The War on Drugs, with it’s emphasis on making large numbers of arrests for low-level drug offenses, disproportionately affected African-Americans.
  • The findings of this research were consistent with previous research which attributes African Americans’ higher probability of drug arrest to racial bias in law enforcement.
  • The magnitude of the effect of this racial bias was found to grow with age: before age 17, whites and blacks had similar likelihoods of drug arrest. Yet by age 22, African-Americans had 83% greater odds of a drug arrest than whites and at age 27 this disparity was 235%.

Description

In the article, “Examining Racial Disparities in Drug Arrests,” Mitchell and his co-authors examined the effects that the policies pursued under the War on Drugs had on different races. The authors utilized data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, which was a nationally representative sample of 8,984 youth living in the United States in 1997, between the ages of 12 and 16. In particular, the authors examined the self-reported data concerning criminal behavior, which includes measures of drug use, drug sales, nondrug offending, and drug arrests. This research found that, rather than holding all drug offenders accountable for their crimes, the policies pursued under the War on Drugs disproportionately held African-Americans accountable for their transgressions. The findings of this research were consistent with previous research which attributes African Americans’ higher probability of drug arrest to racial bias in law enforcement. This evidence of unwarranted racial disparity in drug sanctioning points to a need for drug control policy reform. The study highlighted that a key source of racial disparity in drug sanctions is the drug war’s emphasis on making large numbers of arrests for low-level drug offenses, and therefore policy reforms designed to reduce racial disparities need to target this aspect of drug control policy.

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