NewsBriefs BUTTONS

African-Americans In Alabama Disproportionately Arrested, Sentenced for Drug Crimes


January 1998

African-Americans convicted in Alabama of drug crimes are nearly twice as likely to receive jail time as whites, and nearly 2 1/2 times as likely to receive prison terms of one year or more, according to a Birmingham Post-Herald analysis of drug convictions from 1990 through mid-1997. The Post-Herald's analysis was based on information provided by the Alabama Administrative Office of Courts (Steve Joynt, "Prison sentencings reveal racial disparities," Birmingham Post-Herald, November 30, 1997).

The study showed that for every type of drug, blacks stood a greater chance of receiving jail time than whites: 64% of blacks convicted of cocaine possession received prison terms, compared to 48% of whites; and 35% of blacks received prison terms for marijuana possession convictions as opposed to 31% of whites.

The analysis suggested reasons for the disparity: (1) The low number of black judges and prosecutors in state courts. In Alabama, as of late 1996, there were only 6 black district judges out of 96 and 5 circuit judges out of 131. (2) The inability of blacks to afford top lawyers. (3) Sentencing enhancements, which add years to the sentences of convicted drug dealers.

According to the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center, African-Americans comprise about 55% of the roughly 72,000 total drug arrests in Alabama since 1990. Blacks make up 25% of Alabama's population (Lewis Kamb, "Blacks singled out in drug war, critics say," Detroit News, November 30, 1997).

The disproportionate statistics in Alabama are typical of national figures. In a 1995 study by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization in Washington, nationwide blacks accounted for 35% of those arrested on drug charges but only 12% of the U.S. population (see "New Report Finds 1 in 3 Young Black Men Under Correctional Supervision," NewsBriefs, December 1995).

Critics say the statistics demonstrate that blacks are disproportionately singled out by the law enforcement system, particularly in the anti-drug effort. Paul Butler, a former Federal prosecutor and now a law professor at George Washington University, said, "There are some crimes where you don't see the selectivity, but gee, then you come to drug offenses. Whites are using drugs, but they're not being arrested and going to jail for the same behavior that black people are."

Law enforcement officials say that officers go where community members complain and where confidential informants take them. Sgt. Ron Brandon, head of the Multi-Agency Drug Enforcement Team in Jefferson County, one of 27 federally funded drug task forces in Alabama, said, "If it turns out that there's more blacks being arrested than whites, that's just the way the ball bounces." Jefferson County Chief Deputy District Attorney Roger Brown said he believed any racial difference in sentencing probably was a result of blacks having more serious criminal histories than whites. Brown said, "Without knowing the histories, those numbers are absolutely meaningless. I can tell you one thing with absolute certainty though: Race doesn't have a damn thing to do with it." [A report published last year by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on disproportionate drug law enforcement in Georgia concluded that Georgia law enforcement officers discriminated by choosing the path of least resistance -- that is, arrests are easier to make in poorer neighborhoods with open-air drug markets, amongst strangers (see "Human Rights Violations in Drug Law Enforcement in Georgia," NewsBriefs, September 1996) -- RCT]

Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center - (334) 242-4900, Web:

Paul Butler - George Washington University Law School, 720 20th Street NW, Washington, D.C., 20052, Tel: (202) 994-6024.

Jefferson County Chief Deputy District Attorney Roger Brown - 801 North 21st Street, Room L-01, Birmingham, AL, 35203, Tel: (205) 325-5252.

The Sentencing Project - 918 F Street, NW, Suite 501, Washington, DC 20004, Tel: (202) 628-0871, Fax: (202) 628-1091.

Human Rights Watch - 485 5th Avenue, New York, NY 10017-6104, Tel: (212) 972-8400, Fax: (212) 972-0905, E-mail:; or 1522 K St., NW, #910, Washington, DC 20005-1202, Tel: (202) 371-6592, Fax: (202) 371-0124, E-mail:

Birmingham Post-Herald - P.O. Box 2553, Birmingham, AL 35202-2553. Tel: (205) 325-2222, Fax: (205) 325-2410.