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Cumulative racial inequality of drug defendants


Past research has demonstrated that those arrested for drug crimes is not representative of drug use, suggesting that drug policy and enforcement is highly racialized and unequal. We know much less about where and how racial inequality is reproduced within the criminal justice system, however. Focusing on racial inequality as both a total effect and as a process, I examine where and how racial inequality is cumulatively produced in the criminal justice system for drug defendants. Using data from state and federal courts, I examine this question through three primary analyses. First, I develop a measure of cumulative racial inequality for the court process and for sentencing outcomes to better understand the total effects of inequality. I also analyze the mechanisms of cumulative racial inequality in the state and federal court systems by examining disparities in court processing and outcome decisions while accounting for the effects of previous stages in later stages of the court process. Finally, I focus on a single city to examine how cumulative racial inequality operates in drug arrest patterns, court processes, and alternative to incarceration programs.

I find that racial inequality may be difficult to detect by only examining outcomes at single stages of the process because disparities are often small at any individual stage, and because they occur mostly at early, less visible stages of the criminal justice process. Proactive policing drives much of the initial racial inequality through the use of geographically targeted arrests that focuses on nonwhite neighborhoods. Even before sentencing outcomes, the court process acts as a stratification mechanism in itself, where many mechanisms of inequality, including bail and pretrial detention decisions, occur in pre-sentencing stages. They also occur indirectly through factors such as criminal history which in itself is partially a function of previous criminal justice system contact.

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