Blacks are sent to prison for drug offenses at eight times the rate of whites in Salt Lake County, according to a new study by the Justice Policy Institute.
In contrast, Utah County was one of only five of 198 counties included in the study in which blacks weren't admitted to prison at higher rates than whites. The study, released this past week, was based on population of the two race groups, using admittance rates per 100,000 people.
There are many factors that can play a role in differing rates of incarceration for drug offenses, said Jason Ziedenberg, executive director of the institute and co-author of the study.
"There are different policing practices in different places," he said. "In an urban setting, police ... are more likely to observe drug dealing, on a street corner. In a suburban community, they would have to be knocking down doors to witness it."
Nationally, whites and blacks reported using drugs at similar rates, yet blacks were admitted to prison for drug use at 10 times the rate of whites, the study found. In 2003, blacks comprised 13 percent of the nation's population, and 53 percent of sentenced drug offenders.
Blacks constitute just under 1 percent of Utah's population, according to census estimates, yet eight percent of the state's inmates whose primary offense involves drugs or alcohol, according to corrections data.
The study doesn't look at factors such as arrest rates for whites versus blacks or at conviction rates for those charged with drug offenses. It also didn't take into account factors such as socioeconomic status or the level of the offense.
However, Ziedenberg said, other studies show white drug users are more likely to have access to treatment programs, which plays a role in preventing people from re-offending.
He suggested putting more money into public-health services to target ethnic minority communities with rehabilitation. And he questioned the priorities in drug enforcement.
"Communities, including Salt Lake County, have to analyze how they want various laws enforced," he said. "Most people are concerned about violent crime ... low-level drug sales and possession are less of a priority."
Utah has prevention initiatives in place, such as drug courts, which are located in every judicial district, and a statewide methamphetamine task force.
Drug courts are successful because of constant drug testing and positive reinforcement for success, and sanctions for failure, said Richard Schwermer, drug court coordinator.
"Drug court treatment is the best intervention for criminal justice system-involved addicts," Schermer said. "You get an immediate, both a carrot and a stick, response."
The meth task force is focusing primarily on women, after evaluating statistics that include a 38 percent increase in women at public treatment centers, said Liz Sollis, program manager for Department of Human Services.
However, Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake Branch NAACP, says more needs to be done to reach out to ethnic minority communities. She said of particular concern is crack cocaine, which is predominantly used by blacks.
One thing that has kept black incarceration rates higher has been a federal sentencing disparity of 100-to-1 between the penalty for possession of crack cocaine and powder cocaine, Williams said.
"They allow them to fall through the cracks," Williams said. "We just need to have some things in place so it's going to be equal access to the legal system, across the board."The U.S. Sentencing Commission has started to address that disparity by lowering the mandatory minimum penalties for crack cocaine. The commission is also considering whether to make that action retroactive, which could help some 19,500 people currently incarcerated, 86 percent of whom are black, according to the NAACP.