Incarceration of Drug Offenders: Race, Gender, and Culpability

Eric Sevigny, University of Pittsburgh

This paper examines racial and gender disparities in the imprisonment of drug offenders in state and federal prisons. because sentencing of drug offenders is largely based on the weight of the drug, critics of this sentencing scheme argue that lower-level offenders such as couriers or mules receive disproportionate punishment compared to organizers and leaders of drug trafficking operations. Anecdotal evidence suggests that women tend to be used as low-level couriers and mules because they do not fit the drug trafficker profile. Other sentencing laws, such as the 100:1 powder/crack cocaine sentencing disparity, result in disproportionate imprisonment of blacks. The present study goes beyond previous research that has established race and gender inequities in the sanctioning of drug offenders to examine offenders by the type of drug involved, weapons involvement, and the role played in the offense (e.g., importer, dealer, courier, mule). These indicators will be used to generate estimates of the number of drug offenders in U.S. prisons by level of culpability, race, and gender. The present study uses the Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities, 1997. The dataset is uniquely situated to address the above issues because it is a random sample of currently incarcerated state and federal inmates and contains an array of information on drug offense characteristics, including drug weight, role in the offense, and firearms use. In sum, the present study will aim to determine estimates of the number of incarcerated drug offenders by level of culpability, race,a nd gender. To the extent that unwarranted disparities exists, the policy implications include designs for more equitable sentencing of drug offenders.

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Updated 05/20/2006