In another example of how the arrest of African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. has driven pundits to talk about issues of race and crime, Arianna Huffington, the founder of the liberal Huffington Post news Web site, offered some statistics about race, drug use and incarceration during a July 26, 2009, roundtable on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos .
Huffington said, "It is really stunning that only 15 percent of the total drug population — drug offending population is African-American. And yet you have 74 percent of them who wind up in jail." A staffer for Huffington clarified her point: African-Americans make up 15 percent of drug users, but 74 percent of drug offenders sentenced to prison. Her comment echoed longstanding calls by critics of U.S. drug policy and criminal sentencing guidelines. These critics have argued that blacks are unfairly targeted by U.S. drug laws as well as the ways those laws are enforced. So we decided to dig into Huffington’s numbers to see if they were correct.
An aide to Huffington said her numbers came from a 2006 ACLU report, "Cracks in the System: Twenty Years of the Unjust Federal Crack Cocaine Law," and she did indeed report the numbers correctly from that study. The ACLU, in turn, footnoted those numbers to a fact sheet posted by a group called the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative. When we checked that group’s Web site, however, we could not find any further footnoting for the statistics. So we decided to look at the raw federal data ourselves.
To determine whether blacks account for 15 percent of drug users, we first turned to the 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. That study is considered the most reliable in the field, though experts say it probably undercounts harder-core addicts who cannot be reached by survey takers. Among other things, the study quantifies the rates of illicit drug use by different racial and ethnic groups. The drugs studied include marijuana, cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens and inhalants, as well as the nonmedical use of prescription drugs. The numbers do not include tobacco or alcohol.
According to the survey, 9.7 percent of blacks, 8.1 percent of whites and 7.6 percent of Hispanics reported using illicit drugs within the prior month. To convert these figures into something comparable to what Huffington said, we cross-referenced these drug-use rates to the current populations of each ethnic group, according to the Census Bureau. Our calculations showed that 70 percent of drug users are white, 14 percent are black and 13 percent are Hispanic. On this fact, then, Huffington was very, very close.
She wasn’t as accurate, however, on the second half of her assertion, that 74 percent of all drug offenders sentenced to prison are black.
To verify her number, we turned to "Prisoners in 2007," a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which is the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. That report offered estimated figures for offenders sentenced to state prison for drug violations: 113,500 blacks, 72,300 whites and 51,100 Hispanics. On a percentage basis, this means that 29 percent of inmates for drug offenses were white, 20 percent were Hispanic and 45 percent were black — well under the 74 percent level asserted by Huffington.
In the federal system, the percentages are lower still for African-Americans. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, for fiscal year 2008, there were 25,273 federal sentences for drug offenses. Of that number, African-American prisoners didn’t even account for the highest percentage among the three biggest groups. Hispanics led with 40 percent, followed by blacks at 31 percent and whites at 25 percent.
One drug policy expert we contacted, Beau Kilmer of the RAND Corp., said our calculations were sound, though he added that Huffington’s comparison of drug use and incarceration has some logical holes. "We have to realize most drug use is marijuana, and that’s not the reason why people are going to prison — it’s the harder drugs," Kilmer said.
Ultimately, Huffington was right about one number and quite a bit off with the other. However, even at the much lower rates of incarceration we found, black Americans — who account for about 13 percent of the U.S. population — are still imprisoned for drug offenses at wildly disproportionate rates. So we rate this statement Half True.