Drugs and the Justice System - Arrests For Drug Violations

arrested american african statistics

As mentioned above, the FBI's UCR report estimated that there were 1.7 million arrests for drug violations in 2003. Drug violations are defined by the FBI as "state and/or local offenses relating to the unlawful possession, sale, use, growing, manufacturing, and making of narcotic drugs including opium or cocaine and their derivatives, marijuana, synthetic narcotics, and dangerous non-narcotic drugs such as barbiturates."

A history of drug arrests is presented in Figure 5.3; Figure 5.4 separates drug arrests of adults from those of juveniles. Juveniles are defined in most jurisdictions as those younger than eighteen. Drug arrests increased during the Nixon-Ford (1973-76), Reagan (1981-88), and Clinton (1993-2000) administrations and dropped during the Carter (1977-80) and the George H. W. Bush (1989-92) administrations. Growth in drug arrests is attributable largely to the arrest of adults. In 1970 juveniles represented 22.4% of those arrested. That percentage peaked in 1973 at 26.3%, a level not reached since then. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1.48 million adults and 201,400 juveniles were arrested for drug violations in 2003.

Total drug arrests nearly tripled between 1980 and 2003, from 580,900 to 1.68 million, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Adult arrests alone more than tripled, while juvenile arrests increased only slightly, and have leveled off since the mid-1990s.

Drug arrests, 1980-2003
SOURCE: "Drug Abuse Violation Arrests, 1980-2003," in Drugs and Crime Facts, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2004, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/dcf/contents.htm%20(accessed February 14, 2005)

Drug arrests by age, 1970-2003
SOURCE: "Drug Arrests by Age, 1970-2003," in Drugs and Crime Facts, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2004, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/dcf/contents.htm%20(accessed February 14, 2005)

Possession versus Sale

Most of those arrested for drug offenses are charged with possession rather than with the sale or manufacture of drugs. (See Figure 5.5.) According to FBI data as reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 1982 four-fifths (80%) of those arrested for drug offenses were held for carrying some kind of drug; that proportion was FIGURE 5.5
Number of drug arrests, by type of offense, 1982-2002
SOURCE: Number of Arrests, by Type of Drug Law Violations, 1982-2003," in Drugs and Crime Facts, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2004, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/dcf/contents.htm%20(accessed February 14, 2005)
slightly higher in 2003. This percentage had been lower in the middle of the 1982-2003 period, having declined gradually from 80% in 1980 to 67% in 1991. The ratio began to increase again, eventually matching the 1980 level in 2001. Arrests for possession have grown at an annual rate slightly higher than arrests for sales/manufacture in the entire period, 4.6 versus 4.4% a year, but if measured from 1989 forward, arrests for sales/manufacture actually declined at the rate of 2.9% whereas arrests for possession increased 2.4% a year.

Arrest Trends by Drug Category

In 1982, 71% of all drug arrests were for the possession or sale of marijuana, according to the BJS. By 2003 marijuana-related arrests were just 45% of the total, but were still the largest number overall—about three-quarters of a million arrests out of 1.59 million. (See Figure 5.6.) Between 1982 and 2003 arrests linked to drugs fluctuated somewhat. In 1989, for instance, 54% of arrests were related to heroin/cocaine and only 29% to marijuana, police or public interest in the one rising sharply, while dropping in the other. But marijuana became important again, topping arrests once more in 1996. During the entire period shown in the figure (1982-2003), heroin/cocaine arrests increased at an annual rate of 9.8%; "other" drugs at the rate of 6.7% a year; synthetic drugs at 4.7%; and marijuana at 2.1% a year.

Synthetics, as the FBI defines the category, include all manufactured narcotic drugs, whether made for drug FIGURE 5.6
Number of drug arrests, by drug type, 1982-2003
SOURCE: "Number of Drug Arrests, by Drug Type, 1982-2003," in Drugs and Crime Facts, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2004, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/dcf/contents.htm%20(accessed February 14, 2005)
users exclusively or originally for medical purposes. The "other" category includes dangerous non-narcotic drugs like barbiturates and benzedrine.

Arrest records at the national level are a mix of use patterns and enforcement strategies that may be quite different from city to city; it is impossible to discern which drives which—use patterns resulting in arrests or police initiatives targeting specific user/seller groups. Supply systems, pricing, and demographics of drug use are highly variable; police tactics and approaches are both different and change over time. Data for the 1982-2003 period shown indicate great interest in heroin/cocaine peaking in 1989 and leveling off thereafter; a decreasing emphasis on marijuana until 1991, followed by a steady increase; and a persistent interest in non-narcotic drugs labeled "other" by the FBI.

Alcohol and Drug Trends

According to the UCR program of the FBI, arrest trends from 1984-2003 indicate that alcohol-related offenses, while remaining dominant, dropped, while drug-related offenses grew in importance. In 1984, 3.4 million people were arrested for alcohol-related offenses (drunkenness, driving under the influence, drug law violations); that year 708,400 were arrested for drug violations. Nineteen years later, in 2003, there were 2.6 million alcohol-related arrests and 1.7 million drug arrests. Alcohol consumption has been dropping, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, an element of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Per capita

Drug arrests by race, 2002
[By offense charged, age group, and race. 10,370 agencies; 2002 estimated population 205,108,615.]
SOURCE: Adapted from "Table 4.10. Arrests by Offense Charged, Age Group, and Race, United States, 2002," in Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics Online, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2002, http://www.albany.edu/sourcebook/pdf/section4.pdf%20(accessed February 15, 2005)

Total arrests Percenta
Offense charged Total White Black American Indian or Alaskan Native Asian or Pacific Islander Total White Black American Indian or Alaskan Native Asian or Pacific Islander
Drug abuse violations 1,101,547 728,797 357,725 6,848 8,177 100.0 66.2 32.5 0.6 0.7
aBecause of rounding, percents may not add to total.

consumption of all alcoholic beverages among those aged fourteen and older decreased from 2.65 gallons in 1984 to 2.19 gallons in 1998. Consumption of spirits fell from 0.94 gallons to 0.63 gallons (Apparent Per Capita Alcohol Consumption, Washington, DC: NIAAA, December 2000). Consumption of marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamines has increased in tonnage based on data from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (to be discussed later); physical quantities of cocaine have decreased. But while alcohol is legal, drugs are not.

Arrests and Race

Enforcing the official public policy on drugs has an important impact on the nation's justice system—local policing, the courts, and the state and federal corrections systems. A relatively small percentage of total users are arrested, but at increasing rates. Sentencing policies have changed to require mandatory incarceration of those who possess, not just those who sell, drugs. Prison populations have swollen as a consequence, putting pressure on prison capacities. Arrest rates, sentencing, and incar-ceration have been different for whites and African-Americans.

Most of those arrested for drug abuse violations are white. Of the 1.1 million persons identified by race in 2002 (records do not always capture the race/ethnicity category), 728,797 were white, accounting for 66.2% of all arrests. (See Table 5.4.) That year 357,725 African-Americans were arrested according to FBI data, 32.5% of the total; Asians/Pacific Islanders made up 0.7% of arrestees; and American Indians/Alaska Natives, 0.5%. According to the BJS, since 1993 arrests of African-Americans were down, whereas arrests of all the other racial categories rose. The most rapid growth in the 1993-2002 period was experienced by Asians and American Indians. Arrests of whites grew at a 2.9% rate; African-American arrests declined at the rate of 0.7% yearly.

When arrest rates are normalized by population—expressed as a ratio to the racial group as a whole—African-Americans are arrested with greater frequency than any other group. In 2000, 390 whites were arrested for each one hundred thousand people in the eighteen-and-older population of whites. The corresponding rate for African-Americans was 1,460, for Asians it was 93, and for American Indians/Alaska Natives it was 342. An African-American person was nearly four times as likely to be arrested as a white person, more than fifteen times as likely as an Asian, and more than four times as likely to be arrested as an American Indian. Ratios for 1993 were even higher. One possible explanation for this is that law enforcement efforts are concentrated in areas of predominantly African-American settlement, not because African-Americans used drugs more than the other racial groups.

In 2003, 49.2% of whites aged twelve and over had used drugs in their lifetime, compared with 44.6% of African-Americans, 25.6% of Asians, and 62.4% of American Indians. (See Table 3.5 in Chapter 3.) Drug use in the past month was slightly lower for whites (8.3%) than African-Americans (8.7%), according to data obtained by SAMHSA in their 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). The highest rates of past-month and past-year drug use was reported by American Indians in 2003, but their arrests rates were lower than those for whites. Use of drugs by those of Hispanic origin are shown, but arrest data are not broken down for Hispanics in the FBI statistics.

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