Prop. 47 Lessened Racial Disparities in Drug Arrests

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In 2014, California voters approved Proposition 47, which reclassified drug possession offenses from felonies or “wobblers”—which prosecutors can charge as either felonies or misdemeanors—to misdemeanors, and in the process reduced the state’s prison and jail populations. Now, a study out of UC San Francisco has quantified the effects of the ballot measure, which was at the leading edge of a national movement to reduce incarceration rates and change the criminal justice approach to substance use disorders.

The study found that Prop. 47 reduced felony drug arrests by nearly 75 percent across California, and also helped to alleviate some of the inequality between Blacks and Whites in how often they got arrested on drug charges. In the month following the measure’s adoption, the difference between Blacks and Whites in felony drug arrests per 100,000 population decreased from 81 to 44, and continued to decline over the course of the year. 

“Our findings suggest that efforts like Prop. 47 are an effective way to decrease the disparity in drug arrests between Blacks and Whites,” said Alyssa Mooney, MPH, a doctoral student in the UCSF Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and first author of the paper, published June 21, 2018 in the American Journal of Public Health.

The results are good news for advocates who want to reverse the United States’ punitive approach to substance use, which has resulted in higher incarceration rates for people of color. In the 20 years after President Reagan launched the “War on Drugs,” arrests for drug possession grew 150 percent, and the difference between the rate at which Blacks were arrested for these charges versus Whites increased from three to one to five to one.

“The collateral consequences of felony drug convictions are severe—affecting everything from whether someone can get a job to their ability to get housing and student aid,” Mooney said. “So, alleviating these disparities could help narrow the significant disparities we …

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