Should We Rename It “Selma Francisco”?
By Mike Males
Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice
It’s well known that drug laws across the United States and California have fostered new epidemics of racially discriminatory policing, prosecution, and sentencing. The official statistics show that in San Diego, African Americans comprise 5% of the population but 17% of arrests for drug felonies. In Los Angeles, African Americans are 8% of the population but 25% of felony drug arrestees. Sacramento: 10% and 30%, respectively.
Across California, African Americans are around 3 times more likely to be arrested and 7 times more likely to be imprisoned for drug felonies than their proportions of the population would predict. This despite the fact that according to health statistics, non-Latino whites are abusing drugs the most, accounting for 7 in 10 deaths from abuse of illicit drugs over the last decade.
That Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento, and California as a whole evidence widespread institutional racism in policing drug offenses is troubling enough. But their patterns are moderate compared to Alameda County’s, where African Americans, 12% of the population, comprise 49% of all drug felony arrestees and 76% of those imprisoned for drug offenses.
In turn, Alameda’s significantly disparate drug law enforcement looks benign beside that of San Francisco, which displays the state’s most racist drug arrest statistics—ones that are simply beyond belief. In San Francisco, African Americans, 6% of the city’s population, are arrested for 52% of all drug felonies and comprise 72% of drug offense imprisonments. This in a city that promotes itself as a champion of human rights and where non-Latino whites account for most drug abuse deaths.
Black women under age 20, though only a tiny fraction of the city’s drug abuse problem, comprise one-third of all drug arrests of young black women statewide and are 50 times more likely to be arrested for drug felonies than their counterparts in other counties. In fact numerically speaking, many more young black women are arrested for drugs in San Francisco than in Los Angeles.
Not only are these figures directly from San Francisco’s police and sheriff staggering, they represent a trend that has worsened dramatically over the last 15 years. In the early 1990s, an African American in San Francisco was 4 times more likely to be arrested for a drug felony than locals of other races—bad enough but near the state average. Since then, that gap has widened to nearly 9 times. Fifteen years ago, an African American in San Francisco suffered drug felony arrest rates twice the already inflated rates of African American elsewhere in California—again, bad enough—but today, that ratio has risen to 7.6 times higher. Meanwhile, residents of all colors around California, and non-black residents of San Francisco, have generally seen decreases in drug felonies.
What has caused San Francisco to engage in such extreme drug policing—and it isn’t just the police, a wide array of city agencies have been involved—against African Americans, and what is the city doing to stop it? Since CJCJ first reported on the city’s massive racial drug-war gaps a decade ago to Board of Supervisors, Human Rights Commission, and Commission on the Status of Women, our answer is: nothing we can find.
The only visible results were a 2003 women’s Commission report that offered no explanation for black female youths high arrest rates other than female youths’ own criminality, and a front-page San Francisco Chronicle article on December 17, 2006. There, interest groups simultaneously expressed outrage and unsubstantiated speculations that today’s African American youth and their families are less moral than those of past generations and that white youths should be arrested more.
The fact that San Francisco’s drug war on African Americans hasn’t worked—drug abuse fatalities have continued to rise through 2009, as they have across the state and country—is really a side issue. If it is an example of reform policies gone wrong (the city generally deemphasizes arrests for drug possession and concentrates heavily on drug suppliers), then policies need stringent reexamination. The evidence points to a massive human rights violation of the type San Francisco, in particular, has pledged itself through both U.S. and international laws to prevent and confront. The city’s Human Rights Commission held a hearing this week on “the human rights impact of the war on drugs,” which resurrects the so-far unrealized hope that maybe something now will be done about the city whose own statistics evidence what very likely is the state’s most racist drug war of all.
Mike Males is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. He has contributed research and writing to numerous CJCJ reports, including the "The Color of Justice, an Analysis of Juvenile Adult Court Transfers in California," "Drug Use and Justice: An Examination of California Drug Policy Enforcement," and "The Impact of California's Three Strikes Law on Crime Rates."