[News] Study quantifies racism in Bay Area drug convictions

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Dec 4 12:10:01 EST 2007

Bay Area counties toughest on black drug offenders

<mailto:lfulbright at sfchronicle.com>Leslie Fulbright, Chronicle Staff Writer

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

San Francisco imprisons African Americans for drug offenses at a much 
higher rate than whites, according to a report to be released today 
by a nonprofit research institute.

In a study of nearly 200 counties nationwide, the Justice Policy 
Institute found that 97 percent of large-population counties have 
racial disparities between the number of black people and white 
people sent to prison on drug convictions.

The institute, which is based in Washington, D.C., and researches 
public policy and promotes alternatives to incarceration, says whites 
and African Americans use illicit drugs at similar rates. But black 
people account for more than 50 percent of sentenced drug offenders, 
though they make up only 13 percent of the nation's population.

San Francisco locks up a higher percentage of members of the African 
American community in drug cases than any other county in the study. 
In the county, 123 people out of every 100,000 are sent to state 
prison each year for drug offenses. Of those, whites are incarcerated 
at a rate of 35 per 100,000 white people, while blacks are 
incarcerated at a rate of 1,013 per 100,000 black people.

"It is not that San Francisco is sending a lot of people to prison 
for drug offenses, it is that the people they are sending are black," 
said Jason Ziedenberg, executive director of the institute. "An 
average citizen who uses drugs in San Francisco has a pretty low 
chance of going to prison, but if you are African American, the 
chances are fairly high."

Over the past 35 years, the rate at which the United States imprisons 
citizens has risen dramatically, and the increase has been driven in 
large part by drug offenses, according to the report. Between 1996 
and 2002, the number of people in jail for drug offenses increased by 
about 47 percent.

San Francisco has a small population of African Americans - 6.7 
percent of the total, according to the Census Bureau's 2006 American 
Community Survey - but Ziedenberg said the numbers have a 
concentrated impact within that community. African Americans are 
going to prison for drug offenses at a rate that is 28 times higher 
than the rate for whites.

"If you go to any courtroom in the Hall of Justice, you will see that 
the majority arrested are African American," said San Francisco 
Public Defender Jeff Adachi. "At every stage of the criminal process 
- arrest, conviction and those who are sent to prison - there is a 
disproportionate impact on blacks.

"It is a tradition in San Francisco to focus sting operations in 
communities where there are larger populations of African Americans, 
and there are state and federal grants that support those stings."

Alameda and San Mateo counties also have disproportionately high 
rates of incarcerating African Americans for drug offenses, according 
to the report. In Alameda County, 159 per 100,000 people are admitted 
to prison each year for drug offenses. Of those, whites are 
imprisoned at a rate of 23 per 100,000 white people, while blacks are 
incarcerated at a rate of 797 per 100,000 black people.

In San Mateo County, 76 out of every 100,000 people are admitted to 
prison each year for drug offenses. Of those, whites are imprisoned 
at a rate of 26 per 100,000 white people, while blacks are 
incarcerated at a rate of 946 per 100,000 black people.

In addition to the racial disparities, the report found that counties 
that spend more on policing and the judicial system imprison people 
for drug offenses at higher rates, even if the crime rate isn't 
higher. It also found that counties with higher poverty and 
unemployment rates send people to prison more.

An investigation into arrest rates by The Chronicle last year found 
that police in San Francisco arrest African Americans for serious 
crime at a much higher rate than in the state's other biggest cities.

At the time of that report, San Francisco police cited several 
factors that contribute to the disparity. Police officials said most 
of the dealers coming from out of town by BART or car to sell drugs 
are African Americans; that black drug dealers often sell out in the 
open on street corners, increasing their chances for arrest; and that 
the department devotes a lot of resources to combatting gangs of 
youths responsible for many of the city's black-on-black homicides.

Tim Silard, chief of policy for the San Francisco district attorney's 
office, said the new report was disturbing but that the disparity is 
likely the result of higher arrest rates among African Americans.

"Data show that San Francisco's charging and conviction rates are 
actually fairly consistent across racial lines," Silard said. "At the 
same time, the data show that African Americans in San Francisco are 
arrested for felonies at three and four times the rate in other major 
California cities."

But Adachi, the public defender, said it doesn't matter.

"The arrests may be higher, but it is the district attorney's job to 
ensure that charging practices don't discriminate," Adachi said. "Law 
enforcement is law enforcement."

Dorsey Nunn, a co-founder of All of Us or None and a long-time 
prisoner rights activist, said the numbers were unexpected.

"I see innovative work happening in San Francisco that is getting 
young people of color into programs," he said. "The disparity in this 
report is surprising."

The report is based on 2002 figures from the U.S. Bureau of Justice 
Statistics and 2006 numbers from the National Corrections Reporting Program.

E-mail Leslie Fulbright at 
<mailto:lfulbright at sfchronicle.com>lfulbright at sfchronicle.com.


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