African Americans make up slightly more than half the population of Washington, D.C., but they account for nearly 80 percent of arrests in the city, and 90 percent of drug arrests, says a new report by a group of civil rights lawyers.
According to the Washington Lawyers' Committee, arrest statistics from 2009 through 2011 reveal a "remarkable disparity" between the number of arrests of whites and blacks in D.C.
The report notes that drug arrests -- 60 percent of which were for simple possession -- were particularly high among blacks, despite evidence showing that blacks are no more likely to use drugs than whites. Of every 10 people arrested for drug crimes in the years covered by the report, nine were black, according to the study.
The authors conclude that these arrest patterns may have "significant implications" for the black community in the city.
"Even when an arrest does not result in a conviction," they write, "the arrest itself can have lasting impacts on an individual’s ability to return to school, get and keep a job, find housing, and maintain his or her social and economic standing."
They also argue that the arrests place a needless burden on taxpayers by forcing the criminal justice system to process "tens of thousands of people for behaviors that might be handled in a way less costly to the system and less destructive."
The report comes amid mounting concerns over racial disparities in arrests around the country, particularly for non-violent drug crimes. In January, the American Civil Liberties Union reported that blacks are nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana crimes, despite similar usage rates. According to the ACLU, that gap has widened in the last decade, even as support for the decriminalization of marijuana has grown.
Last month, in a special report on marijuana arrests in Washington, D.C., the ACLU found that the local arrest rate for marijuana crimes among African Americans jumped from 521 per 100,000 people in 2002 to 716 per 100,000 people in 2010.
The MPD did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the new report.
In an op-ed published in The Washington Post last month, Cathy Lanier, chief of the Metropolitan Police Department, acknowledged that the ACLU report "highlighted an important policy issue facing the nation," but added that the disproportionate arrest of blacks in D.C. is "a complex issue that cannot be boiled down to an allegation that MPD selectively enforces the law against our black communities."
She pointed out that "59 percent of MPD officers are black, a higher proportion than the city as a whole."