Race, socio-economic disadvantage, drug use and selling in a high risk sample.


Dr. Paul Bellair, Department of Sociology
Rank at time of award: Professor


In recent decades the number of individuals incarcerated for low-level felony offenses has increased substantially, with socio-economically disadvantaged Blacks disproportionately represented (Office of National Drug Control Policy, 2011) Rising concern over the uneven imprisonment of Blacks has generated an important policy debate. Extant research, typically reliant on a school but sometimes household survey of the population, reveals that Blacks and Whites are similarly involved in drug use and selling,(Alexander, Michelle, 2010) and that, irrespective of race, drug use and selling are generally not associated with neighborhood- or individual-level socio-economic disadvantage. If disadvantaged Blacks are no more or are less likely to use or sell drugs, it is argued, their disproportionate imprisonment reflects unequal enforcement of drug laws in disadvantaged Black communities (Alexander, Michelle, 2010) . That result calls into question social disorganization and social control theories, which anticipate a significant relationship between neighborhood and individual socio-economic disadvantage and drug outcomes and have been employed to explain race differences in violence (Bellair, Paul E. and Brian R. Kowalski, 2011).
A critical limitation of prior research is that the subjects most heavily involved in drug use and selling and hence at highest risk of incarceration, whether Black or White, are not likely to be included in population surveys, and if included they are more likely to attrite ( Cernkovich, Stephen A., Peggy C. Giordano and Meridith D. Pugh, 1985). Both processes distort the relationship between race, socio-economics, and drug use and sales. What is needed, then, is analysis of self-report data drawn from a random sample of high-risk subjects that are rarely included in population samples. We address that limitation by proposing growth curve analysis of a random sample of 250 male prisoners (roughly half Black and half White) and detailed survey data collected with a monthly life event calendar that spans the eighteen month period immediately preceding incarceration (Sutton et al., 2011). The social experiences of the sample are dynamic with substantial variation in and shifting exposure to socio-economic conditions including neighborhood disadvantage, individual-level socio-economic disadvantage, and drug use and drug selling. The analysis provides a clear picture of the race and socio-economic correlates of drug use and dealing in a high risk sample and takes an important step towards unraveling the important policy questions described above including hypotheses derived from social disorganization and social control theory.

Publications resulting from this seed grant:

2011. James Sutton, Paul E. Bellair, Brian R. Kowalski, Ryan Light, and Donald Hutcherson. “Reliability and validity of prisoner self-reports gathered using the life event calendar method.” Journal of Quantitative Criminology 27: 151-171, PMCID:PMC3768153.  PMCID: PMC3768153 PMCID: PMC3768153