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The New Drug Thugs: Old White Guys

The biggest irony of today's prison debate is that while authorities exploited public and lawmakers' fear of youth crime to build more prisons, the people filling new prisons by the hundreds of thousands are middle-aged.
Mike Males

Issue #58, December 2001

The biggest irony of today's prison debate is that while authorities exploited public and lawmakers' fear of youth crime to build more prisons, the people filling new prisons by the hundreds of thousands are middle-aged. The second irony is that no one across the political spectrum noticed.

Quick: What's California's fastest declining prison population over the last decade? Young black men, by far, in both number and per-capita rate of imprisonment. Fastest GROWING by number? Older black men. Fastest growing by rate? Older white men. You'd think, given ten years of dramatic trends, California's activist lobbies against prison expansion would have caught on to this new reality.

For the numbers are dramatic. In 1999, there were 4,000 fewer black men under the age of 30 admitted to California prisons than in 1990, a rate decline of 35%. The proportions of younger whites, Asians, and Latino prisoners stayed about the same over the decade. Overall, California's under-30 prison admittees dropped by 5,000. But this was more than offset by the growing numbers of over-30 men fitted for new orange wear: 3,000 more African Americans, 3,500 more Hispanics, and 4,500 more non-Hispanic whites were sent to prison in 1999 than in 1990.

And that, in brief age-race demography, is the reason California's prison population grew rapidly over the decade.

There was also a sharp change in the age and color of new prisoners, which is the best predictor of what the future incarcerated population will look like. In 1999, 22% of California's new prisoners were older whites, up from 15% in 1990. Meanwhile, younger blacks dropped from 18% of new admittees in 1990 to 9% today. They were replaced by older black admittees, whose share grew from 10% to 19%. Latinos and Asians saw prison proportions remain fairly stable, dropping slightly among younger ages and rising slightly among older ages.

Overall, California's prison population grew from 28% non-Hispanic white in 1990 to 31% in 1999 — an amazing shift, given that the state's white population fell during the decade as other races' populations grew rapidly. Even more surprising, new admittees age 30 and older rose from 47% to 60% over the decade.

The aging and whitening of California's prison population is due largely to the War on Drugs — the very crusade interest groups claim is locking up more young, dark-skinned men. Four-fifths of the leap in imprisonment of whites over age 30 was for drug offenses, compared to 70% for older blacks, 60% for Latinos, and 40% for Asians. Meanwhile, drug-related imprisonments declined substantially among younger ages, especially African Americans.

Now, this is not to say imprisonment rates of whites and blacks are even nearly equal. For example, in 1999, a young (under age 30) black man was nine times more likely to be imprisoned than an older (over 30) white man. However, this large race and age imprisonment gap was much larger in 1990 (20-fold) and larger still in 1980 (26-fold). Older blacks and Latinos — with a smaller gap between their imprisonment rates and those of older whites — narrowed it further over the last decade.

police state picture!While young blacks remain six times more likely than older whites to be imprisoned for drug offenses, older whites' drug abuse rate (as shown by drug deaths and hospital treatments) is four times higher than that of younger blacks. This pattern indicates that the middle-aged white imprisonment rate would be much higher if older whites were subjected to the same harsh policing and sentencing younger ages, especially younger people of color, suffer.

The bottom line: as California became younger and darker, its prison population became dramatically older and whiter. The biggest reason appears to have been harsher drug-law enforcement. Anyone care to put these unexpected outcomes in their pipe and smoke up a new theory of prison politics?

Conventional wisdom to date holds that prisons are bursting with rising legions of young black and Latino men. That should especially be true in California, where prison-building and drug-law enforcement have been more vigorous, and younger populations of color have grown much faster than elsewhere. That California prisons are filling with older, often white, offenders has not affected the prison debate, even though its implications are profound for the way crime and drug abuse are perceived and addressed. This year, California will spend more than $2 billion to cage adults 30 and older — a group crime experts have told us for decades have 'aged out of their crime prone years.' This is more than the state spends on the entire university system, and it's going to get worse. Calculations by Stanford University's Philip Zimbardo estimate it costs five times more in health costs to cage an over-50 inmate than a 20 year-old.

But the reality of a middle-aged drug, crime, and imprisonment scourge does not seem to suit either pro-or anti-prison lobbies as much as the manufactured image of a youth drug-prison epidemic. There is no other way to explain how such a massive social phenomenon — 1.2 million more adults 30 and older arrested nationwide for serious violent, property, and drug felonies every year in the 1990s compared to the 1970s — could have gone completely unnoticed by numbers wonks on all sides for 20 years. In much-watched California, felony arrests of the over-30 age group rocketed from 70,000 per year in the 1970s to a whopping quarter-million per year in the 1990s, producing an 800% increase in over-30 imprisonments — a 400% per-capita increase even when population growth is figured in.

Further, California white middle-agers displayed the biggest increase by far in violent, property, drug, and other felony arrest rates over the period (up 120%), while youths of every color showed massive (40% to 60%) felony arrest declines. Practically the only mention of these startling trends is in the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention's 2000 report: 'The age group with the greatest increase in violent crime arrest rates is persons in their thirties and forties. No one has argued that there is a new breed of middle-aged superpredator, but the data provide more support for that conclusion than for the concept of juvenile superpredators.'

The drug abuse epidemic driving the crime surge among middle-agers is equally serious and equally ignored. In 2000, the federal Drug Abuse Warning Network's nationally adjusted survey reported a record 146,000 hospital emergency treatment episodes for heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine abuse among adults 35 and older. This is massively larger than the equivalent totals DAWN reported in 1990 (39,000) and 1980 (4,000). Similarly, drug abuse deaths have escalated steadily among the over-35 set, reaching a record 8,500 in DAWN's latest (1999) report, constituting three-fourths of all drug abuse deaths in the country. In short, it's no surprise older adults, led by whites, show massive surges in imprisonment, given their skyrocketing levels of drug abuse and felony comission.

Yet as if by tacit agreement among the major Drug War debaters — from reformers like Common Sense for Drug Policy and National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws to the White House Office of Drug Control Policy — the exploding middle-aged drug crisis has been designated a taboo topic. The only permissible population to link to drug abuse is teenagers, a group subjected to incessant high-level fear mongering and media fabrications of heroin and ecstasy 'epidemics.'

In fact, teens account for less than 2% of heroin and cocaine ER treatments and 1% of drug abuse deaths. Worse, the temporary peak in gun homicides and violent crime among poorer teen and young adult men in the early 1990s (which has now subsided to a 30-year low) appears to have been caused by warfare between urban gangs competing to supply the burgeoning middle-aged, typically suburban demand for cocaine, crack, and heroin. Note again that even after rapid declines in the 1990s, young black men remain the group most likely to be imprisoned for drug offenses despite the fact that they show the lowest (and fastest declining) drug abuse rate. Meanwhile, even after rapid increases, older whites remain the least likely to be imprisoned for drugs despite their much higher (and rapidly increasing) drug abuse levels.

What lies behind these staggering, decades-long denials of fundamental reality on strenuously debated issues such as crime, drugs, and prison policy? I argue that across-the-spectrum blindness results from misconceptions of youth and of middle age that prevail in America. These misconceptions appear to dictate a rigid, unreal policy non-debate that has produced the worst drug abuse crisis in our history and leaves the United States the highest-risk society for violent crime in the Western world.

police state picture!As summed up by conservative, ultra-quotable crime experts such as UCLA's James Q. Wilson and James Alan Fox, youth are rash, dangerous, addiction-prone 'temporary sociopaths.' Middle-agers are identified as wise, stable, beleaguered parents whose only sins are working too hard and permissively indulging their unsupervised adolescent 'barbarians.' These demographic biases mandate political and institutional positioning firmly on the side of 'soccer moms' and dads against the external evils of pop-culture, consumerist, and peer influences corrupting a youth horde innately eager to be led astray.

Such a construct provides no framework for finding solutions to a grave social crisis: suburban moms and dads are the very ones fueling a drug and crime eruption; together with a punitive War on Drugs driven by rampant fear of teenage addiction, this has led to record prison populations largely composed of graying Baby-Boom addicts.

As a result, American authorities and interest groups on all sides lack the will to face even the most menacing social problems, ones of magnitudes no other Western nation would tolerate. Unlike The Netherlands, whose drug-law reforms were based on frank recognition of the need to manage its aging hard-drug-addict crisis while de-emphasizing younger people's harmless marijuana pastime, American interest groups continue to marginalize the drug problem by misportraying it as one of 'youth' or 'minorities' rather than a mainstream exigency set squarely in the heart of mid-life white America. Federal agencies, major institutions such as the Carnegie Corporation and Center on Adolescent Health, and interest groups such as Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse or Lindesmith Center, issue cloned reports and press statements that restate and re-restate the same wrongheaded myths about teens and drugs' or 'youth violence' or the insidious influence of video games, television, and cultural images.

Meanwhile, the strategy for dealing with (or more correctly, evading) the politically inconvenient middle-aged drug and crime epidemic has been to banish it by sending hundreds of thousands to prison or addiction treatment without specifying who we are talking about. Thus, we render the problem faceless while misrepresenting it as youthful. Policy makers deplore the homicides among inner-city drug suppliers as "youth violence" without discussing who the customers are. Liberals lament the growing numbers of children of incarcerated parents as a new youth problem, while pretending their parents are pure victims of anti-drug policies rather than suffering from serious addictions. That imprisonment has proven an abysmal remedy to the middle-aged drug crisis is a compelling point, if only prison reduction lobbies would admit the crisis of addiction exists.

When innovative thinking and policy shakeup is imperative, we look to reformist groups to ignite change. Yet today's reform groups and media increasingly invest in being part of the problem. From In These Times' cover illustrating the nation's gun violence epidemic with a cold-eyed gun-brandishing white youth (among the least likely groups to commit gun violence) to Common Sense for Drug Policy's alarms of heroin and crack among eighth-graders (an age group whose near-zero drug abuse levels are dwarfed by their grandparents' heroin and coke habits), youth are treated merely as a commodity of fear which can be fanned or abated as necessary to advance varied agendas.

Both the liberal 'program lobby' and conservative prison lobby need to flatter the mainstream (comprised heavily of middle-aged adults) as epitomes of good values and behaviors, menaced by marginal populations (youth of color, and now including suburban white youth described as "at risk") who must be controlled and redirected. Both lobbies need a steady stream of bad news about youth, and both need to overlook transgressions of the mainstream. Since the marginalization of social problems is a conservative tactic, the result is a more hostile, conservative, anti-youth mood among the public and policy makers.

Further, the fear-youth tactics pushed by progressive anti-drug-war and anti-prison lobbies to achieve their humanitarian agenda goals are bizarrely self-defeating. Hard-line conservatives such as William Bennett and John Walters, both ardent Republican drug veterans, exploit fear of the supposedly growing population of 'adolescent superpredators' to push massive zero-tolerance, anti-drug, draconian sentencing and massive prison building policies. Creating a fear of crime and drug threats, identified with a marginalized population such as youth, does not promote the humanitarian responses progressives want; rather, it is the driving force behind America's conservative resurgence over the past two decades.

Such rank political gaming entails an indifference to pressing youth interests that is unconscionable. The most sensible and important (but far from the most political) strategy to protect young people and to reduce addiction, crime, and imprisonment is to openly face the fact that parents and other aging Baby Boomers are the ones suffering the big problems; they cause young people increased family and community disruption.

Whether new California and Arizona voter-passed laws to channel nonviolent drug offenders to treatment rather than to prison represent genuine reform or will simply create a new generation of prison-like treatment centers (or treatment-center-like prisons), furthering the privatization of the incarceration industry, depends on how realistically progressive lobbies depict just what today's drug and crime challenge is. If public and policy makers continue to believe the drug problem is "them" (that is, kids and minorities selling and snarfing heroin on inner-city and suburban playgrounds alike), then prevailing sentiment will continue to be: lock 'em up.

But if the problem is perceived as being "us" (the middle-aged Betty-Fords any family can sympathize with), sweeping, genuine reform becomes a real possibility. Revolutionizing the drug and prison debate begins with a simple step: injecting into it the revolutionary information that it is a mainstream, not marginal, issue.

Mike Males is a Justice Policy Institute senior researcher and University of California, Santa Cruz, sociologist. His writings, research papers, statistics, and sources are at:

Copyright © 2001 by Mike Males. Graphics: still image from Booked for Safekeeping, taken from the Internet Moving Image Archive. Brush and ink drawing Copyright Mike Mosher 1985, 2001. All rights reserved.