Kemone was only 15 with $40 in his pockets when he started dealing drugs. A fast learner, he flipped that cash to make about $1,000 in less than two weeks.

He went from being a straight-A student to studying the drug game.

Kemone got really good at it after a while. He drove fancy cars and flaunted designer garb. He owned his own nightclub. He was the man.

But after 10 years, making his money illegally inevitability caught up with Kemone, a black man locked up in the state's prison system, serving 7 years on two counts of distributing crack cocaine and two counts of distribution near a school. His last name is being withheld at the request of authorities, to protect his victims.

Across the nation, most prisoners convicted on drug charges have the same skin color as Kemone, according to a new report by a Washington-based think tank that pushes for alternatives to incarceration for social problems.

The report, released last week by the Justice Policy Institute, says there is a nationwide trend showing markedly more blacks than whites being imprisoned for drug crimes. Specifically, the nonprofit found that 97 percent of the nation's largest counties locked up blacks at higher rates than whites for drug charges.

Charleston County lines up with the rest of the country.

The county has the largest racial disparity in the state for imprisoning more blacks than whites for drug crimes, the report shows. The study found that blacks here are sent to prison for drug offenses at 24 times the rate of whites, which is larger than disparities found in Richland, Greenville and Spartanburg counties.

For every 100,000 people living in Charleston County in 2002, of those imprisoned for drug offenses, about 255 were black whereas only about 11 were white.

"That's pretty significant," said La-Wanda Johnson, deputy communications director for the Justice Policy Institute.

Johnson said blacks and whites appear to sell and use drugs at similar rates but that law enforcement could be concentrated in black communities nationwide.

Perhaps blacks who buy and sell drugs in open-air urban markets are more visible to police, Johnson said, whereas those who handle drugs in the privacy of their homes are less likely to be caught.

The report argues that the main thrusts driving disparate rates of imprisonment aren't related to the prevalence of drug use in a county. But disparities are more often seen in counties with large black populations, high poverty and unemployment rates and where a great deal of money is spent on law enforcement and the judicial system.

Researchers also reported other factors might play a role, such as unequal policing practices, differences in how persons are treated in court and lack of drug treatment availability for some groups.

What could be causing the disparity locally is complex and multifaceted.

Focus on high-visibility street crime

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said his office, like most police departments across the country, focuses on street crimes, because he said those types of offenses seem to cause the most grief for residents.

Cannon said they often respond to calls about drug activity on street corners and have learned to spot suspicious individuals buying or selling illegal drugs regardless of what they look like.

"I know that from a policing standpoint, we're not making decisions on how and where we're going to police based on race," he said. "I know that."

But as residents push for more patrolling and ask for law enforcement to crack down on high-crime neighborhoods, poorer communities that could be predominately black sometimes become focal points.

The reality, Cannon said, is that they rarely are dispatched to break up cocaine or prescription drug parties in high-rent districts. That frustrates the sheriff. "We'd love that," he said. "But we don't get those calls."

Heath Hoffmann, director of the Crime, Law and Society program at the College of Charleston, said perhaps it is easier for police to surveil the streets than keep tabs on what happens behind closed doors.

"If you're on the street corner dealing drugs versus dealing drugs out of your home, you're more likely to get caught on the street corner," Hoffmann said. "You can't really blame cops for that."

Kemone conceded that his peers could easily be picked up by police for flaunting their riches. "They target us young black folks, because we're real flashy," he said. "I was a real flashy guy."

Kemone said he lived his life the way popular culture taught him to. Now, as he passes each day behind bars, he said it wasn't worth it.

More than race

Charleston County Chief Public Defender Ashley Pennington said sometimes individual cops do carry grudges in arrests, but for the most part, he doesn't see racial prejudices at the prosecution level. "I can't say that race is not a factor, but I don't think that it's that simple," Pennington said.

For example, repeat offenders are subject to tougher sentences, noted Pennington, who is an advocate for alternatives to incarceration.

Pennington said there are known disparities, however, about how cocaine and crack cocaine offenses are punished differently through mandatory minimums for drug crimes. Cocaine is a potent powder that is inhaled. Crack cocaine, which is smoked, is less potent but is more widespread.

Federal laws are stricter for crack cocaine offenses. Pennington said blacks are more often charged with those types of drug crimes, though he said "crack cocaine proliferates in the white community as well."

'Instill the virtue of work'

About 24,000 inmates are being held in South Carolina's prison system.

Data collected by the state Department of Corrections in late June shows 20 percent of inmates were imprisoned primarily for a dangerous drug crime. Of those criminals, 3,741 are black. Only 876 are white.

The Rev. Joseph Darby, a former probation counselor for more than a decade, said he is convinced there are "latent prejudices that still come into play sometimes in the judicial process."

That, along with other factors, such as a lack of adequate legal representation because of financial constraints or some criminals seeing drug trafficking as their only means of support, is why Darby said he wasn't surprised to learn that Charleston had such a high disparity in its imprisonment rate.

The solution? "We need to help with some of the young people to instill the virtue of work," Darby said, adding that young people also need access to better training and more jobs that pay adequate wages.

Pennington said society as a whole should build momentum to help redirect former criminals and reduce recidivism.

This summer, Kemone learned carpentry skills and more through a program called Lowcountry Civic Justice Corps, a new initiative aimed at helping rehabilitate offenders through job training, mentoring and community service.

Kemone said he lacked discipline when he was younger, especially after his grandmother died, but the program taught him that hard work is what pays off. He doesn't want to let his wife and five kids down, he said.

"I learned that you can make it without selling drugs. You can work hard and do the right thing and still support your family," said Kemone, who is still imprisoned at the Coastal Pre-Release Center in North Charleston. He'll share his new outlook on life with a parole board in January.