WASHINGTON — For the first time since crack cocaine sparked a war on drugs 20 years ago, the number of black Americans in state prisons for drug offenses has fallen sharply, while the number of white prisoners convicted for drug crimes has increased, according to a report released Tuesday.
The Washington-based Sentencing Project reported that the number of black inmates in state prisons for drug offenses had fallen from 145,000 in 1999 to 113,500 in 2005, a 21 percent decline. Over the same period, the number of white drug offenders rose steadily, from 50,000 to more than 72,000, a 42 percent increase. The number of Hispanic drug offenders was virtually unchanged at about 51,000.
The findings represent a significant shift in the racial makeup of those incarcerated for drugs and could signal a gradual change in the demographics of the nation's prison population, which has been disproportionately black for decades. Drug offenders make up about a quarter of the overall prison population.
The Sentencing Project report and other experts said the numbers could reflect two factors: an increased reliance by prosecutors and judges on prison alternatives such as drug courts, and a shift in police focus to methamphetamines, which are used and distributed mostly by white Americans.
The report relied heavily on data compiled by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics and covered six years ending in 2005, the last year the bureau broke down the state prison population by race and drug offense.
African-American drug offenders, who have been convicted most often for dealing and possessing crack cocaine, still made up a disproportionate share of the total, 44 percent in 2005, because black Americans make up only about 12 percent of the U.S. population.
According to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics last year, 7.2 million people are under prison supervision, as inmates, parolees and probationers, at a cost of about $45 billion per year.