Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Arrests for Drug Possession After California Proposition 47, 2011-2016

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Abstract

Objectives

To evaluate the effects of California Proposition 47, which reclassified felony drug offenses to misdemeanors in 2014, on racial/ethnic disparities in drug arrests.

Methods

Using data on all drug arrests made in California from 2011 to 2016, we compared racial/ethnic disparities in drug arrests between Whites, Blacks, and Latinos, immediately and 1 year after policy changes, controlling for secular and seasonal trends.

Results

In the month following passage, absolute Black-White disparities in monthly felony drug arrests decreased from 81 to 44 per 100 000 and continued to decrease over time. There was an immediate increase of 27% in the relative disparity, however, because a higher proportion of felony offense types among Whites was reclassified. Total drug arrest rates also declined, suggesting drug law enforcement was deprioritized. During the first year after enactment, felony drug arrests fell by an estimated 51 985 among Whites, 15 028 among Blacks, and 50 113 among Latinos.

Conclusions

Reducing criminal penalties for drug possession can reduce racial/ethnic disparities in criminal justice exposure and has implications for improving health inequalities linked to social determinants of health.

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