California Latinos would really like the war on drugs to end, according to a poll released Tuesday.
Seven in 10 California Latinos want to reduce penalties for drug possession, according to a survey by the polling organization Latino Decisions. Clear majorities in the poll of 400 registered California Latino voters rejected the policy of punishing nonviolent drug users with jail sentences, an approach that has played a major role in turning the United States into the country with the world's highest incarceration rate.
The study comes at a time when individual states like Colorado and Washington, as well as foreign countries like Uruguay, are rethinking the U.S.-led prohibitionist policies that have created a lucrative black market for illegal drugs.
The poll was commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonpartisan group that supports reforming drug laws, and Presente.org, a progressive Latino advocacy group.
"Latinos are really fed up with the war on drugs, which has really become a war on Latino families," said Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente.org, during a Tuesday conference call with reporters. "Despite using no more drugs than their white counterparts, Latinos and African-Americans are imprisoned at record rates, tearing apart families and leaving entire communities impoverished."
Sixty-nine percent of respondents agreed either strongly or somewhat that "California should minimize the penalties for drug possession, but drug sellers should be held accountable." The figure varied little among respondents of different income groups or political identifications. Latinos of different ages showed the most variation, with 74 percent of 18- to 39-year-olds agreeing that drug possession penalties should be minimized, compared to just 59 percent of 40- to 59-year-olds. Perhaps unexpectedly, 72 percent of respondents over 60 years old favored minimizing drug possession sentences.
The survey revealed widespread concern over racial disparities in drug law enforcement, with 82 percent of respondents saying it was a serious or a very serious problem. Republicans were less likely to show concern over the issue (57 percent) than Democrats (94 percent) or political independents (74 percent).
Only 16 percent of Latino voters in California favored a zero tolerance approach to drug enforcement, according to the poll. Instead, most respondents favored either drug treatment for offenders or tailoring penalties on a case-by-case basis.
"What is clear from our survey is that California laws that decriminalize drug possession will receive enthusiastic support from the Latino electorate," Adrian Pantoja of Latino Decisions wrote on Tuesday.
Though whites, blacks and Hispanics use drugs at similar rates, people of color are more likely to face jail time over drug offenses, according to Human Rights Watch. A 2010 study cited by Human Rights Watch found that black and Hispanic males received harsher sentences than whites in federal court, and that the effect was more pronounced in drug cases than for other crimes.
Hispanics made up 45 percent of California's prison population as of mid-2013, according to the latest figures available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, although Latinos account for only 39 percent of the state population. Latinos are California's largest ethnic group, having surpassed non-Hispanic whites in March.
Latinos face also face a disproportionate threat of incarceration in the state due to a recent surge of prosecutions for immigration-related crimes, particularly illegal entry and re-entry. At a national level, immigration crimes accounted for 30 percent of all federal criminal convictions in 2012, second only to drug crimes, which accounted for 33 percent, according to a Pew study released in March.
The researchers at Latino Decisions pointed out that the two phenomena are related, noting that about 41,000 people with drug crimes on their records have been deported annually since 2008, according to an analysis of deportation records by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.