Opioids, Race, Context, and Journeys to Crime: Analyzing Black–White Differences in Travel Associated With Opioid Possession Offenses

Published date01 December 2021
Date01 December 2021
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2021, Vol. 48, No. 12, December 2021, 1714 –1731.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/00938548211006757
Article reuse guidelines: sagepub.com/journals-permissions
© 2021 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
Analyzing Black–White Differences in Travel
Associated With Opioid Possession Offenses
University of Delaware
Texas A&M International University
University of Delaware
Journeys to crime, or distances traveled from residences to places of alleged crimes, describe how people enter into the
criminal justice system. Race, as an ascribed characteristic of individuals and a determinant of community conditions, intro-
duces disparities in journeys to crime. Use of opioids among nonurban, White populations and changing law enforcement
responses prompt inquiry into how race affects journeys to crime associated with opioid possession. This study evaluates
Black–White differences in travel among persons arrested for opioid possession in Delaware. It applies race and rationality
theory to assess the effects of race and racialized context on travel patterns. Multilevel models reveal travel to possess opioids
is greater for White relative to Black Delawareans. Community conditions such as marijuana possession arrest rates and
concentrated disadvantage have varying impacts on travel from various geographic areas. Racial–spatial differences in travel
show persistent disparities in drug law enforcement amid efforts to curb opioid misuse.
Keywords: race; substance use; offending; offender; criminal justice; quantitative methods; policing
The long-studied concept of a “journey to crime” posits that a person comes into con-
tact with the criminal justice system by traveling from one place to another where an
alleged crime occurs (Chopin & Caneppele, 2019; White, 1932). Although journeys to
AUTHORS’ NOTE: This research derives from work on the “Delaware Opioid Metric Intelligence Project”
(2017-IJ-CX-0016), funded by the National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice. Tammy L. Anderson
of the Center for Drug and Health Studies is the principal investigator of this funded project. Correspondence
concerning this article should be addressed to Ellen A. Donnelly, Center for Drug and Health Studies,
University of Delaware, 257 E. Main St., Newark, DE 19711; e-mail: done@udel.edu.
1006757CJBXXX10.1177/00938548211006757Criminal Justice and BehaviorDonnelly et al. /
crime may be complex—involving multiple stops, backtracking, or loops around areas
before a crime occurs (Rossmo et al., 2004)—travel is most commonly examined by cal-
culating the shortest distance from a person’s home to the location of an alleged criminal
incident (Rengert, 2004). Distances traveled by individuals are not equal (Gabor &
Gottheil, 1984), especially in the context of drug buying as the availability of illicit sub-
stances (Smart, 1980) and enforcement of drug laws (Beckett et al., 2005; Johnson et al.,
2013) vary across geographic space. To explain variation in travel associated with drug
possession, scholars and crime analysts alike consider the characteristics of individuals
and conditions in residential communities to construct travel patterns (Ackerman &
Rossmo, 2015; Levine, 2003).
Race forges disparities in journeys to crime due to its effects on individuals and the char-
acter of communities (Johnson & Carter, 2019). Emphasizing the significance of race and
racialized space in their framework (hereafter referred to as race and rationality theory),
Johnson and Carter (2019) propose that travel depends upon the ascribed characteristics of
people who are arrested and their communities. People of color, especially from residential
communities predominantly of color, will travel shorter distances due to broader social
forces of racism, segregation, and discrimination in law enforcement. To date, previous
work on journeys to crime consistently find that White individuals tend to travel farther
from their homes than Black individuals (Johnson, 2016; Johnson et al., 2013; Pettiway,
1995), but such studies have yet to explicitly consider both race and racialized space in an
empirical analysis of travel as per Johnson and Carter (2019).
The rise of nonmedical opioid use introduces new empirical questions regarding jour-
neys to crime for drug possession as the profile of people who use opioids has changed
(Lankenau et al., 2012). More White, older, female, and affluent Americans are likely to
misuse opioids today than 40 years ago (Cicero et al., 2014; Jalal et al., 2018). In turn,
police assistance and drug treatment programs to address opioid addiction have proliferated
in predominantly White, suburban, or rural areas (Keyes et al., 2014; Netherland & Hansen,
2016; Pearlman, 2016) at the neglect of urban areas facing similar problems (Cole et al.,
2018). Opioid use is contributing to a shifting landscape of drug misuse and interdiction
efforts (Donnelly et al., 2021; Purviance et al., 2017). Addressing where people travel for
opioids, what drives travel, and what disparities emerge in opioid law enforcement can help
stakeholders curb opioid problems in their communities and improve racial fairness in
access to drug treatment.
This study investigates the individual and contextual factors that predict the journeys to
crime of people identified as Black or White by police officers and arrested for opioid pos-
session offenses in Delaware. Using arrest data from 2013 to 2017, we compare the dis-
tances taken from an arrested person’s geocoded home address to the point of an alleged
criminal incident for opioid possession. We then apply the propositions of race and rational-
ity theory to explain why some people who are arrested journey farther than others. Our
analysis considers the roles of race, community conditions, and community type (i.e., urban,
suburban, and rural communities) in influencing where or how far people arrested for opi-
oid possession travel. Our study advances scholarship on travel distance by (a) examining
journeys to crime associated with acquiring opioids in light of changing patterns of drug use
and law enforcement, (b) distinguishing Black–White differences in travel for opioid pos-
session offenses, and (c) using race and rationality theory as a new lens to understand dif-
ferences in distances traveled across communities.

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