NEW HAVEN, Conn. — When an epidemic of crack and gang violence erupted in cities like New Haven in the 1990s, police and lawmakers struck back hard.
The war on drugs yielded dozens of new laws, including mandatory sentences for drug dealers and heavier penalties for dealing crack rather than powdered cocaine.
But those laws also had unintended consequences in minority communities.
Black men make up less than 3 percent of Connecticut’s population but account for 47 percent of inmates in prisons, jails and halfway houses, 2000 census figures show.
One in 11 black men between the ages of 18 and 64 in Connecticut is behind bars, the census found. In 1990, that figure was about one in 25.
Similar disparities can be seen across the country. In Louisiana, one of the few states to receive updated race statistics from the census, black inmates outnumber whites 3-to-1; blacks account for only a third of the state’s population.
Nationwide, the Justice Department reported that 12 percent of all black men between the ages of 20 and 34 were locked up last year.
“I don’t think anyone intended it to be this way, but if you were trying to design a system to incarcerate as many African-American and Latino men as possible, I don’t think you could have designed a better system,” said state Rep. Michael Lawlor, co-chairman of the Connecticut Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates state governments spend $20 billion a year fighting drugs.
Some states now are trying to ease the drug laws of the 1990s, putting more money toward prevention and treatment instead of incarceration.
“You can’t put every drug user in jail, because if you do and they don’t get any help, they’re going to be right back in again,” said Chief State’s Attorney Jack Bailey, Connecticut’s top prosecutor for 10 years.
This year, the Legislature voted to give judges more leeway in sentencing drug dealers who operated near schools, day care centers and public housing projects.
The old law set a three-year mandatory minimum sentence for dealing within 1,500 feet of those places. In densely populated New Haven, that meant virtually everywhere except the Yale University golf course and the Tweed-New Haven airport runway.
While drugs also are prevalent in Connecticut’s mostly white suburbs, the preference there for powdered cocaine over crack and sprawling development meant that few suburban dealers faced the same penalties.
In California this year, a ballot proposition takes effect that will mean treatment instead of prison for many first- and second-time drug offenders. Offenders’ records are cleared if they complete treatment.
A similar 4-year-old program in Arizona has saved money because treatment is cheaper than prison, a state analysis found.
Similar programs are being considered in Ohio, Florida and Michigan.
Some politicians, however, believe a hard line on drugs is appropriate, or do not wish to be seen as soft on crime.
“I think it sends out a very negative message to the public at large,” said Connecticut state Rep. Ronald San Angelo, a Republican who opposed changing mandatory minimum sentences.
People who lived through the gang and drug wars also offer caution. While they are angry that a generation of young black men are in prison, they do not want to return to the past.
Lorraine Stanley, a resident of a New Haven housing project for 13 years, recalled how a drug gang called the Jungle Brothers terrorized her neighborhood. Police eventually busted up the gang, and now a police substation in the neighborhood keeps crime down.
“Things have gotten a whole lot better,” Stanley said.
Despite changes in the laws, other experts said racial bias in the courts and poverty in the cities will continue to lead to more prison time for minorities.
Frank Mandanici, a public defender in New Haven, said that bias among juries affects verdicts and sentences for black defendants.
“Racism permeates our society. It’s a cancer no one is willing to address,” he said. “There is no test on how to detect it and what to do with it.”
Yale political science Professor Donald Green said the density and poverty of cities combined with law enforcement tactics have put more blacks in prison.
“Drug use is similar in white and nonwhite populations, but the level of enforcement is very different among the two groups,” he said. “Violent crime is more associated with gang activity, associated with drug abuse in minorities, and enforcement is aimed overwhelmingly in that direction.”
Also, Green said, poor people of all races turn to crime when there are no other opportunities.