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Informing America’s Policy on Illegal Drugs: What We Don’t Know Keeps Hurting Us
ness with which different population segments are treated by law enforcement agents. The committee emphasizes that an improved understanding of the effectiveness of local law enforcement can be achieved only through such exploration combined with acquisition of data on drug consumption, prices, and labor market variables.
FINAL NOTE: EVENHANDEDNESS IN ENFORCEMENT
The nation has long maintained the expectation that law enforcement should be fair as well as effective. In particular, Americans expect that enforcement efforts will not target members of specific socioeconomic or demographic groups. As the Supreme Court stated in Yick Wo v. Hopkins in 1886, law enforcement officials violate the Constitution if they apply an otherwise valid law “with an evil eye and an unequal hand so as practically to make unjust discriminations between persons in similar circumstances.” While society’s concern for evenhandedness in enforcement is a normative matter, this concern generates empirical questions on which data and research can shed light: How evenhanded is enforcement policy today? What would alternative policies achieve?
A flash point of recent public discussions of evenhandedness in drug law enforcement has been the striking disparities between the racial or ethnic composition of the U.S. population and the racial or ethnic distribution of persons arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for drug offenses. In the year 1997, the U.S. population was estimated to be 82.7 percent white, 10.9 percent Hispanic, and 12.7 percent black. In the same year, those arrested for state drug offenses were estimated to be 62 percent white (the FBI’s arrest data do not differentiate between non-Hispanic and Hispanic whites) and 36.8 percent black (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999:342). Among persons convicted for felony drug offenses in state courts in 1996, 45 percent were white and 53 percent were black (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999:432; note that there are no comparable data for 1997). Among state prisoners serving time for drug offenses in 1997, 41.5 percent were white (22.5 percent Hispanic and 19 percent non-Hispanic white) and 56.1 percent were black (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999— Prisoners in 1998, page 10, table 16).
While the existence of these disparities is widely acknowledged, there is no consensus about their interpretation. Some argue that the large disparity in arrest (37 percent black compared to 12 percent black in the population, or an arrest rate of blacks that is three times that of whites) is an indication of disproportionate surveillance in black neighborhoods and/or bias in arresting black users and sellers. They argue that NHSDA data show little difference between the races in their use of drugs (see