It's Still All Reagan's Fault

Eric Eckholm on two studies of the drug war: "More than two decades after President Ronald Reagan escalated the war on drugs, arrests for drug sales or, more often, drug possession are still rising."

It's still all Reagan's fault, said reporter Eric Eckholm (a political appointeein the Carter administration) in his story on a study on the drug war, "Reports Find Persistent Racial Gap in Drug Arrests - Law Enforcement Faulted for Focus On Poor Areas."

"More than two decades after President Ronald Reagan escalated the war on drugs, arrests for drug sales or, more often, drug possession are still rising. And despite public debate and limited efforts to reduce them, large disparities persist in the rate at which blacks and whites are arrested and imprisoned for drug offenses, even though the two races use illegal drugs at roughly equal rates.

Whatever the merits or demerits of tough sentencing for drug possession, to cry that it's all Reagan's fault is rich, especially coming from someone of Eckholm's political background. And the sub-headline seems to indicate that the law is only bad because it's focused on the poor. If drug laws are just, why does it matter who's caught breaking them? Decriminalization of drug possession is a principled position, but the Times doesn't go that far, indicating that it doesn't mind the laws themselves, simply the fact that more blacks are arrested than whites under them.

Eckholm's sources are two unlabeled liberal groups.

Two new reports, issued Monday by the Sentencing Project in Washington and by Human Rights Watch in New York, both say the racial disparities reflect, in large part, an overwhelming focus of law enforcement on drug use in low-income urban areas, with arrests and incarceration the main weapon.

But they note that the murderous crack-related urban violence of the 1980s, which spawned the war on drugs, has largely subsided, reducing the rationale for a strategy that has sowed mistrust in the justice system among many blacks.

Eckholm's tone was melodramatic:

Apart from crowding prisons, one result is a devastating impact on the lives of black men: they are nearly 12 times as likely to be imprisoned for drug convictions as adult white men, according to the Human Rights Watch report.

Others are arrested for possession of small quantities of drugs and later released, but with a permanent blot on their records anyway.

He did get an opposing conservative view, albeit quickly balanced out by a liberal one:

Some crime experts say that the disparities exist for sound reasons. Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York, said it made sense for police to focus more on fighting visible drug dealing in low-income urban areas, largely involving members of minorities, than on hidden use in suburban homes, more often by whites, because the urban street trade is more associated with violence and other crimes and impairs the quality of life.

"The disparities reflect policing decisions to use drug laws to try and reduce violence and to respond to the demand by law-abiding residents in poor neighborhoods to clean up the drug trade," Ms. Mac Donald said.

But what people in low-income urban areas need is not more incarceration but improved public safety,[SentencingProject report author Ryan]King said. "Arresting hundreds of thousands of young African-American men hasn't ended street-corner drug sales."