AFSC-AZ REPORT: RACIAL DISPARITIES IN DRUG CRIME SENTENCING

American Friends Service Committee-Arizona analyzed the court records of people who were sentenced to prison for a drug crime in Maricopa, Pima and Yavapai counties in 2015.  They discussed their findings and recommendations in Drug Sentencing in Arizona: A Prescription for Failure, by Rebecca Fealk, MPA, and Caroline Isaacs, MSW, August 2017.  All quotes and data are taken from their report.

The report found racial disparities that harm Blacks in the form of higher incarceration rates for possession of drugs, longer prison sentences, greater penalty for crack vs. powder cocaine, and longer prison sentences for fewer charges as discussed below.  

The report found that Blacks are incarcerated at a higher rate for possession of drugs

“The data collected is consistent with other national study findings, that Blacks are sentenced to prison at a higher rate for possession of drugs.  This is true across the board, for marijuana, methamphetamines, and narcotics. . . .

From the research, we see that people of color go to prison at a higher rate for possession of drugs, with Black people having the highest rate in every area.  This is especially concerning, as the Black population is actually underrepresented in the study as compared to the 2015 ADC population.”

The report also found that Blacks serve longer prison sentences for drug offenses as shown by two charts.  The first chart showed the average prison sentence in months for methamphetamine possession with prior convictions.  Black: 33.29; Latino-U.S. Citizen: 30.67; Latino-Non-U.S. Citizen: 24; Native American: 25.89; and White 32.55. The second chart showed the average prison sentence in month for marijuana sales with no prior convictions.  Black: 43; Latino-U.S. Citizen: 29.66; Latino-Non-U.S. Citizen: 21.27; Native American: 18; and White 27.75. The report concluded:

“Clearly, more data and further analysis is critical in order to investigate the cause of these disparities and to determine what possible policy or procedural changes are needed to ensure that all Arizonans are treated equally under the law.”

Like many states, Arizona passed “zero tolerance laws” that permitted a lower thresholds and/or longer sentences for crack cocaine than for the powder form of the drug.  These laws contributed to higher rates of incarceration for Blacks. The report noted:

“As a result, in 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which reduced the sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine.  And in 2011 the U.S. Sentencing Commission made the law retroactive, allowing over 12,000 people-85% of whom are Black-to have their sentences for crack cocaine reviewed by a federal judge and possibly reduced.  In Arizona, we still have a 12:1 disparity in crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing.  In other words, it takes 12 times as much powder cocaine as crack cocaine to receive the same sentence.  Nine grams of powder cocaine or 750 milligrams of cocaine base trigger five-year prison terms for sales offenses.”  (emphasis in original).

The report noted that Blacks often serve more prison time for fewer charges:  

“Our research indicated that people of color, specifically Black people, frequently had fewer charges but received longer prison sentences. . . . Black people are likely to serve more prison time for fewer charges.”  (emphasis in original)

The report shows that Arizona does have racial disparities in the prosecution and sentencing of drug offenders.  If you or a loved one has been charged with drug offenses, you need an experienced attorney to defend you. Attorney Gary Rohlwing has over thirty years experience.  Call him today for a free consultation.

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