Criminal Justice

U.S. drug and immigration laws target nonviolent young people of color, report shows

The war on drugs has been wreaking havoc on communities of color for decades, but a new federal study reveals how America’s drug laws — and the more recent crackdown on immigration — are still disproportionately affecting young blacks and Latinos.

The study, conducted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission and viewable in its entirety below, focuses on “youthful offenders,” defined as being age 25 or younger, in the federal justice system. There were more than 18,000 such offenders between 2010 to 2015, accounting for about 18 percent of the total number of people who faced federal prosecution.

The numbers in the report are sobering.

  • 92 percent of the offenses committed by youthful offenders were nonviolent
  • 43 percent involved individuals with no criminal history
  • The most common charges were for drugs — and nearly 40 percent of those prosecutions were related to marijuana
  • More than 57 percent of the youthful offenders were Hispanic; 21 percent were black.

Immigration charges were the second-most-common federal offense among youthful offenders, and three out of four of those charges were brought for “illegal reentry,” meaning somebody who had been deported returned to the country without permission. Another 20 percent of these cases involved “alien smuggling” charges, which can include everything from working as a coyote shepherding people across the border to merely driving with an undocumented relative in the vehicle.

The grim stats come as little surprise; racial disparities in the federal justice system have been thoroughly documented for years. But the numbers also highlight the futility of these criminal prosecutions from a public safety standpoint. Not only are all but a small fraction of the youthful offenders nonviolent, but the group also has the highest recidivism rate of any demographic — about 67 percent, versus 41 percent for offenders over 25. That means two-thirds of these young people who get locked up end up getting arrested for another crime later on.

The situation probably won’t improve anytime soon. Reforms implemented by the Obama administration gave federal prosecutors leeway in drug cases, allowing first-time or nonviolent offenders to avoid harsh mandatory-minimum sentences. Attorney General Jeff Sessions just reversed that policy, however, and he has repeatedly expressed his intentions to re-escalate the drug war and get even tougher on immigration.

As the Sentencing Commission’s report makes clear, those policies will lead only to more nonviolent, non-white young people in federal prison for longer stretches.

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