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Could lower drug charges reduce the racial sentencing disparity?

Across the U.S., minorities face apparently race-based disparities in every part of the criminal justice system. They tend to be contacted by police, arrested, charged, and convicted at higher rates than whites despite being no more likely to commit crimes than their white peers. They are also incarcerated more often and sentenced to longer terms in prison.

A 2016 study by the Sentencing Project found that Pennsylvania had 8.9 African-Americans in prison for every white person, even though African-Americans make up only about 11 percent of Pennsylvania's population. That disparity makes Pennsylvania the 7th most disparate state in terms of incarceration. The nationwide average is five African-Americans in state prison per white person, and African-Americans make up about 13.3 percent of the U.S. population.

There are a number of reasons for these disparities, many of them structural. For example, it seems that African-Americans are much more likely to be brought into the criminal justice system for minor drug offenses than whites, even though they do not use drugs at higher rates than whites. Overall, our nation's drug laws fall harder and more often on minorities than on whites.

Because of this, some criminal justice reformers believe that reducing the penalties for drug possession might go a long way toward addressing these systemic disparities. And, there is now some evidence that this approach works.

In 2014, the state of California passed Proposition 47, a law that reduced certain drug possession felonies to misdemeanor-level offenses. It also raised the monetary threshold for felony check forgery and theft so that fewer offenses would qualify as felonies.

San Francisco commissioned a report on how these changes affected racial disparities at various levels in the criminal justice system, along with what drove the effect. In 2010, African-Americans made up 6 percent of San Francisco's population.

There was a lot of interesting information, but we can't cover it all in a blog post. However, here are a couple of highlights. After Prop 47 took effect, San Francisco saw:

The percentage of arrests for drug felonies among African-Americans plummeted from 23 percent of all arrests to 9 percent

The average time suspects held in pretrial detention fell from 33.5 days to 18 days for African-Americans and from 17.4 days to 12 for whites

The sentencing gap between African-Americans and whites drop by half

These gains were achieved mostly by reducing some non-violent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Do you think Pennsylvania could reduce the racial disparities in its criminal justice system by adopting similar measures?

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