The Black community experiences a decrease in overall arrests with the de facto decriminalization of drug possession

After the de facto decriminalization of low-level drug offenses in Baltimore, MD in April 2020, there was a significant reduction in low-level, drug-related arrests overall, with the vast majority (82%) of the decline occurring in the Black community. Yet significant racial disparities still persist. Credit: American Journal of Preventive Medicine

De facto decriminalization of drug possession can be seen as an initial step in addressing the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on the Black community in the United States.

According to a recent study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, this strategy has resulted in significant and sustained reductions in low-level drug-related arrests. These arrests often hinder drug users from accessing necessary treatments and services. However, the study also highlights the persistent racial disparities in the application of these directives by law enforcement.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Despite similar levels of drug use across different demographics, drug possession arrests are disproportionately concentrated in Black and low-income communities, leading to racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

While some states and localities have passed decriminalization laws, many jurisdictions are using prosecutorial discretion to effectively decriminalize drug possession and divert low-level drug users away from prisons, where they often experience negative health outcomes.

Saba Rouhani, Ph.D., MSc, Assistant Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the New York University School of Global Public Health and core faculty at the Center for Anti-racism, Social Justice and Public Health, explained the motivation behind the research: “We conducted this study to examine whether directives like de facto decriminalization could address racial disparities in the criminal justice system in Baltimore, a majority Black city with significant substance use and racialized policing burdens.”

The investigators analyzed arrest trends from January 2018 to December 2021, before and after the de facto decriminalization policy was implemented in Baltimore. They found that there was a significant reduction in low-level drug-related arrests following the policy change in April 2020.

The majority (82%) of this decline occurred in the Black community. However, the study also revealed that the ratio of street arrests of Black individuals compared to non-Black individuals increased from 5:1 to 12:1.

Dr. Rouhani commented, “Our analysis of drug possession arrests before and after the de facto decriminalization in Baltimore shows that it holds promise for reducing low-level, drug-related arrests among people of color. However, we observed that racial disparities in drug possession arrests actually widened after the policy change, with almost exclusively Black individuals being arrested for simple drug possession despite the non-prosecution directive.”

These findings support previous research by the team, which showed that less than 1% of individuals who had their warrants and pending charges for drug possession dropped due to this policy went on to commit more serious offenses in the following year. Together, these studies suggest that de facto decriminalization has the potential to rapidly decrease arrests without increasing other forms of crime in the community.

The researchers acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic may have contributed to the rapid decline in arrests, but the sustained reductions in low-level drug arrests even after the lifting of stay-at-home orders suggest that it was not the sole explanation. Additionally, the study did not observe similar magnitude reductions in other crime categories, further supporting the conclusion that the policy had an impact on drug arrests.

Dr. Rouhani added, “This research is particularly timely as it evaluates the effects of a de facto decriminalization approach without legislative reform, which is crucial to understanding its potential for improving health outcomes such as drug overdose.”

“To effectively address the racial disparity gap, jurisdictions must critically examine how police discretion influences the implementation of these policy directives. Mobilizing community health and social services is also essential to ensure that individuals diverted from the criminal justice system have reliable access to resources such as housing, employment, and healthcare to improve their long-term health.”

More information: Saba Rouhani et al, Racial Disparities in Drug Arrest Before and After De Facto Decriminalization in Baltimore, American Journal of Preventive Medicine (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2023.04.004

Citation: Study: De facto decriminalization of drug possession reduces the overall arrest toll on the Black community (2023, June 19) retrieved 19 June 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-06-de-facto-decriminalization-drug-toll.html

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