Conversations That Matter: Disparities in the Application of Law Among Ethnicities

"When examining the current structure of the United States’ criminal justice system, several staggering patterns and truths emerge. These discrepancies are perhaps best observed with a fundamental understanding of the War on Drugs."

As of 2017, the United States’ population stands at around 325 million. According to a 2017 Prison Policy Initiative report1, there are an estimated 2 million Americans behind bars, which the report defines as the sum total of state prison, local jail, and federal prison populations. Over a million of that 2 million figure are African-Americans. Concurrently, The Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization working to reform the criminal justice system, further reveals that people of color (POC) constitute 37% of the U.S. population but make up 67% of the prison population. Both reports clearly show that when it comes to White-Americans, Latino-Americans, or other non African-American ethnicities, less than 1% of each respective ethnicity is incarcerated. For African-Americans, over 2% of their total population is behind bars. This is not a mere statistical aberration.

Surprisingly, the United States bears the undesirable distinction of having the highest rate of incarceration among the global community, incarcerating more per 100,000 residents than do even the most repressive regimes, including Iran, Russia, and China. When examining the current structure of the United States’ criminal justice system, several staggering patterns and truths emerge. These discrepancies are perhaps best observed with a fundamental understanding of the War on Drugs, a campaign launched by President Richard Nixon in 1971 and expanded by President Ronald Reagan during the 80s, and its enduring implications. Before the War on Drugs was declared in 1980, there were 50,000 people behind bars for nonviolent drug law offenses; by 1997, that figure had skyrocketed to 400,000, a 700% increase. Instinctively, that statistic suggests the rate of nonviolent drug law offenses must have risen to result in such a steep rise in prisoners. Unfortunately, that is a dangerously convenient fallacy. In reality, that sharp spike was driven by the War on Drugs, a concerted effort to target and disenfranchise certain ethnicities under the veil of a public concern for the imagined scourge of illegal drugs. Nixon’s own top aide, John Ehrlichman, admitted years later that during Nixon’s 1968 campaign, there was a deliberate attempt to vilify and thus severely skew, public perception of Blacks and hippie communities. Both communities were perceived political adversaries, one because they were against American war efforts and the other because they were simply Black. From Ehrlichman’s perspective, “we knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by gett