Twenty-four hours after authorities arrested Sarah Furay on charges of drug possession and manufacture charges, the 19-year-old Texan was safe at home.
Inside the bedroom of her College Station apartment police found large amounts of Ecstasy, cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine, and an LSD analogue. They also found packing materials and two digital scales. Following the seizure, Furay was taken to Brazos County Jail, where the evidently unruffled teen smiled for a mugshot. After posting $39,000 bail, she left.
In the days after her arrest, multiple news organizations ran stories focusing not on her crimes as much as her “photogenic smile.” Her picture was coined the “happiest mugshot in America” and the “jolliest in recent history.” Rather than a criminal act, her offense was called “an entrepreneurial approach to avoiding student loan debt." The icing on the cake was news (broken by Death and Taxes) that her father is a “head honcho” at the local DEA office—a fact that was treated more as a potential TV plot line than a damning fact.
But while the media’s virtual coddling of Furay is a story all its own, it’s demonstrative of an even larger problem: racial disparity in the war on drugs. The repercussions of reporters classifying a white teenage drug dealer as “adorable” are far different than those when law enforcement does the same. A story fueled by stereotypes can offend; an arrest fueled by the same can put individuals in prison for life.
Death and Taxes, one of the first to run a story calling Furay “adorable” wrote a heartfelt, formal apology for the mistake, admitting that the story “missed the mark.” The apology is genuine, with the editor conceding that her smile is likely related (at least in part) to the fact that “the criminal justice system works to her favor.”
The editor says the article was not meant to be malicious. Indeed, the story itself is far from the worst manifestation of this phenomenon. There’s no need to use the coddling of a white teenage drug dealer in the news as proof that racial disparity in the war on drugs exists when there are real life examples of African Americans spending their lives in prison for mere possession of $20 worth of pot.
In a 2009 report, Human Rights Watch found black adults to be arrested for drug charges at rates 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than those of white adults in every year from 1980 through 2007—the most recent for which there was data. One in three of those arrested in that time period was African American.
The study also found, as many since have as well, that although African Americans make up the majority of drug arrests, they are not more likely to use drugs or sell them. According to The Drug Policy Alliance, African Americans make up 30 percent of the drug law arrests, despite making up only 13 percent of the U.S. population. Marijuana arrests is one of the worst areas of racial disparity, with an ACLU report finding blacks to be 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for possession than whites.
But for many, the arrest is just the beginning. In a 2013 paper from the journal of Legislation and Public Policy, Cynthia E. Jones found the odds of black and Latino defendants being held in jail because they were unable to make bail double that of whites. This isn’t simply because of higher rates of unemployment. Another study from the Justice Policy Institute found 18- to 29-year old African Americans to be hit with higher bail than both whites and Latinos.
The discrimination doesn’t end there. According to drug policy experts, prosecutors pursue mandatory minimum charges against blacks at a rate of 2:1 when compared to whites with similar crimes. The number helps explain why 57 percent of state prison law violators and 77 percent of federal are minorities.
Art Way, a senior drug policy manager at The Drug Policy Alliance, says the 19-year-old likely benefitted (and will continue to) from her ethnicity and family status. “Furay has posted bond that was likely smaller than what most people of color her age would have received, and I’m sure she has private counsel,” he told The Daily Beast. “As a result, she escapes pretrial detention and possibly prison through early plea bargaining.”
His reaction to her arrest in general is emblematic of how rare it is for authorities to arrest of a white teen for dealing drugs—despite the fact that they do it in equal numbers (or as some research shows, more) than black teens. “It is more difficult for the tentacles of the system to reach those like Furay,” he says. “I’m surprised they were actually looking for her instead of her falling in their lap on accident. The truth is probably more akin to the latter.”
In Way’s opinion, the roots of the racial inequality fueling the war on drugs runs deeper than unfairly targeting blacks. “The overarching disparity is the reality that drug policy is intertwined with the continued disenfranchisement of communities of color. This is the only explanation of the type of gross disparity we see across the country,” he says. “Communities of color are the day-to-day battleground for the drug war.”
To be sure, Furay is not off the hook. All told, she’s facing at least three felony charges (two first-degree and one second-degree). If convicted, she could spend hundreds of years in prison. A prison sentence that severe may not fit the crime—but then again, in the world of drug incarcerations, they rarely do.