Study Highlights Racial Disparities In Oregon Drug Arrests

By McCarton Ackerman 12/19/16

African Americans received felony drug possession convictions at more than twice the rate of whites in 2015.

data graph
Graph via OregonLive

African Americans make up about 2% of Oregon's population, but are arrested for felony drug possession at staggeringly higher rates than white residents in the state.

A new study released by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission highlights the racial disparities in Oregon’s conviction rates for drug possession.

The commission examined cases in which drug possession was a person’s only felony conviction. Cases that involved any additional charges, such as theft, were not included. Approximately 1,642 Oregon residents received their first felony drug possession conviction last year.

African Americans were convicted on felony drug possession at more than double the rate of whites in 2015, and at three times the rate when it came to methamphetamine possession. This is despite the fact that studies have shown that African Americans use illicit drugs at lower rates than whites.

Graph via OregonLive

"Everyone who uses or possesses (illicit drugs) has committed that crime," the director of the Criminal Justice Commission, Mike Schmidt, told The Oregonian. "Whether or not they are caught is completely different.”

John Robb, a former public defender in Multnomah County who now works in private practice in Portland, pointed out the seriousness of the findings when it came to correlations between felony convictions and more limited employment and housing opportunities.

“[It] moves you into a different class of people,” said Robb. “Picture life as a long hallway with doors. If you get convicted of a felony, especially at a young age, three or four of those doors close. You just can't go into them."

The District Attorneys for both Washington and Clackamas Counties expressed concern that the study’s pool size was too small to draw conclusions from. However, they both said the findings were eye-opening and vowed to look at ways in which African Americans might systematically be treated differently during these cases.

An October 2014 analysis from the Brookings Institution found that black Americans nationwide are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for possessing drugs and 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for selling drugs. However, 2012 federal survey data has shown that a higher percentage of young white Americans sell drugs than black Americans.

In May 2014, the National Bureau of Economic Research released a study which showed that this false perception leads to African Americans regularly being turned away by employers.

“The results don’t look like what you would call typical old-school racism. The research in the paper suggest that the bias is coming in more subtle ways,” said the author of that study, Abigail Wozniak, an economics professor at the University of Notre Dame. “Instead of looking really hard at every applicant, [employers] have these impressions that they go by. Testing gives them a rule of thumb that avoids this bias.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.