Imprisonment for drug behaviors: An examination of social -structural determinants
The rapidly rising U.S. incarceration rate over the course of the last three decades has been driven in large part by an exceptional growth in the rate at which individuals are incarcerated for drug offenses. The number of people incarcerated for drug offenses in the year 2000 was about 458,000. This is approximately the same number of prisoners who were incarcerated for all offenses in 1980. African-Americans are disproportionately represented among those who are placed in U.S. prisons for drug behaviors, despite government-sponsored research indicating little racial variation in drug use. A large number of behavioral and social science inquiries seek individual-level correlates of drug use and criminal justice involvement. Since the distribution of individuals who are imprisoned for drug behaviors does not approximate the known patterns of illicit drug use across racial groups in the United States, the current research seeks to illuminate the social-structural predictors of imprisonment for drug behaviors at the county level. For this research I linked 6 publicly-available sources of information about U.S. counties, to create a unique dataset that contains a wide variety of variables describing county-level characteristics in 1996. My multivariate regression models indicate that the single largest predictor of the drug imprisonment rate is the size of the per-capita policing budget, even after controlling for the significant effect of the violent crime rate. This finding illustrates the importance of policing in the social construction of crime rates and criminal justice outcomes. The percentage of African Americans in the population, the unemployment rate, and the level of Republican party support are also positively related to the drug imprisonment rate, indicating that the disproportional impact of drug imprisonment in the U.S. is related to the persistent ways in which our communities are stratified and segregated by these characteristics. Growing rates of drug imprisonment are dysfunctional for African Americans and others who are disproportionately impacted by this recent trend. High rates of drug imprisonment persist because they are functional for privileged subpopulations that are not targets of this punitive practice.