Democrat Sheila Bynum-Coleman faces a daunting task this fall running against Speaker Kirk Cox in the newly-drawn 66th House District containing a portion of Chesterfield County.
Criminal justice reform ranks high among her priorities.
"People of every race use illegal drugs at similar rates, yet African-Americans are far more likely to be imprisoned than whites," she says on her campaign website. "African-Americans are three to four times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes and nine times more likely to be imprisoned."
We wondered whether her statistics are correct. Bynum-Coleman told us on July 26 that they were posted by a campaign worker and she didn’t know their sources. She said she’d call us back with more information, but we didn’t hear from her. We reached her again on Aug. 2 and she said she’d call us back. That call hasn’t come as of this writing.
So, we took off on our own.
Drug use and arrests
Bynum-Coleman may have been referring to data in a 2014 National Research Council report on "Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences." Pages 60 and 61 focus on drug crimes. The study has not been updated.
The report says, "The prevalence of drug use is only slightly higher among blacks than whites for some illicit drugs and slightly lower for others; the difference is not substantial. There is also little evidence, when all drug types are considered, that blacks sell drugs more often than whites."
That agrees with data from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. It found 11.8 percent of whites and 13.7 percent of blacks 18 or older said they had used illicit drugs during the past month.
The National Research Council report says, "In recent years, drug-related arrest rates for blacks have been three to four times higher than those for whites. In the late 1980s, the rates were six times higher for blacks than for whites."
Bynum-Coleman also cited statistics about the racial rates of imprisonment for drug crimes. Those numbers are harder to find.
On similar fact checks, PolitiFact has turned to Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst for The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group in Washington. She’s pointed to racial breakdowns by the Bureau of Justice Statistics on the number of people in prisons for drug offenses.
Those numbers aren't perfect for our comparison. For example, the state prison data only lists inmates based on their most serious offense, so someone also convicted of a drug crime may not be listed in that category if that person was given a longer sentence for assault.
We compared the bureau’s newest data to estimated racial populations by the U.S. Census Bureau and found the black imprisonment rate for drug offenses near the end of 2016 was 6.45 times higher than the rate of whites.
That’s close to an assertion on the NAACP's Criminal Justice Fact Sheet that "the imprisonment rate of African-Americans for drug charges is almost six times that of whites." The statistic is undated and unsourced.
In Virginia, blacks were imprisoned for drug offenses at about 6.1 times the rate of whites at the start of 2019. That’s according to a racial breakdown of prisoners whose most serious crime was drug-related, sent to us by the state Department of Corrections, compared to census population estimates.
Bynum-Coleman says, "African-Americans are three to four times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and nine times more likely to be imprisoned." She hasn’t provided sources for the statement.
She’s on the mark in saying blacks are three to four times more likely to be arrested for drug offenses.That matches findings in a 2014 study by the National Research Council that hasn’t been updated.
Clearly, there’s a huge imbalance in black and white imprisonment rates for drug offenses, but not as big the nine times greater for blacks claimed by Bynum-Coleman. Our research shows it was 6.45 times greater in 2016 - the latest year necessary statistics are available. In Virginia, it was 6.1 times higher for blacks at the start of 2019.
Overall, we rate her claim Mostly True.