by Jamey Dunn
A new look at statistics shows racial disparities occur in almost every step as defendants facing drug charges make their way through Illinois’ criminal justice system.
In 2008, the General Assembly unanimously approved the creation of The Disproportionate Justice Study Commission to assess the effects of Illinois’ drug laws on racial and ethnic minority populations and the incarceration rates of members of those populations. The commission includes legislators, law enforcement officials, corrections experts, addiction treatment specialists, members of the legal and academic communities and others. The group took testimony at three public hearings. Commission members studied Illinois statistics on arrests, prosecutions and sentencing, data collected in 2005, and compared them with national trends.
The result is a quantitative and qualitative look at the impact of drug policy on minorities in the state.
The commission’s report, released earlier this year, says that a jump in prison populations in Illinois and nationwide has been fueled by changes in drug policy that emphasize punishment and enforcement over possible treatment alternatives. “These policies have especially and adversely affected African-Americans throughout the United States. The collateral consequences of imprisonment for drug crimes are varied and significant, harming individuals, families and communities. In Illinois, the rate of imprisonment for drug offenses is substantially higher for African-Americans than for whites — a finding that has been replicated in several studies. Throughout the 1990s, African-Americans represented an average of 80 percent of all persons admitted to Illinois prisons for drug offenses,” the study says.
The report notes that nationally, prison populations quadrupled from 1980 to 2000. In 1980, 6 percent of inmates were locked up for drug charges. That rate rose to 20 percent in 1999. The numbers have dropped slightly in recent years. In state prisons, which researchers said represent the “lion’s share” of the national prison population, drug offenders made up 18 percent of inmates in 2008.
From 1992 to 2004, the arrest rate for drug crimes in Cook County increased by more than 25 percent, and it more than doubled in the rest of the state. The proportion of African-Americans among all individuals arrested on drug charges in Illinois went from 46 percent to 82 percent between 1983 and 1992. During the same years, the proportion of whites arrested on drug charges shrank from 41 percent to 11 percent. The number of African-Americans sent to prison for drug offenses in Illinois grew from 1,421 in 1990 to 9,088 in 2000.
Sen. Mattie Hunter, co-chair of the commission, says the numbers of African-Americans she saw incarcerated made her curious about the statistics and the causes. “There is a high[ly] disproportionate number of African-Americans incarcerated throughout the state of Illinois, on a local level as well as in our state prisons. It makes you wonder because it made me wonder, ‘Why were there so many?’” says Hunter, a Chicago Democrat. “I visit the prisons. I visit the women, visit the men, to try to talk to them and encourage them. [I] go over to the county jail and talk to the women over there, and there’s just so many [African-Americans]. It’s just so overwhelming. … One has to wonder, ‘What the hell is going on here?’”
Regardless of the type of crime, minorities are arrested at a greater rate than whites when compared with their percentage of the general population in Illinois. However, the study found racial disparities in arrests for drug crimes in 62 of the 102 Illinois counties. In fact, the study noted that the likelihood of a defendant receiving prison time for a drug charge could be most accurately predicted by considering three factors: the nature of the crime (possession versus sale of drugs); criminal history; and race. Two of those factors should be considered for sentencing, while one clearly should never come into play.
Members of minority groups made up 66 percent of all those arrested for Class 4 possession — the lowest level of felony drug charge — in 2005, while their representation among the general population was 27 percent. Rates for drug use are comparable for all races and ethnic groups, the report says.
One theory the report puts forth for the high number of arrests is that drug deals in urban communities often take place in the open and are much easier for police officers to target. “It’s just easy to cast a net here and get something, and we see those results in the proportion of people of color behind bars,” says Daphne Baille, a spokesperson for Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC), which contracts with state government to provide court-ordered addiction treatment. The Chicago-based group assisted with the commission’s report.
According to the study, the presence of a criminal record had a correlation with future arrests. Whites and minorities with no criminal records were arrested at rates closer to their representations in the general population, while minorities with criminal records were more likely than whites with records to be arrested again. The report theorizes that a possible cause is that white offenders are more widely utilizing programs that allow them to clear their records more quickly or avoid incarceration altogether.
Cook County courts were flooded with minor drug charge cases. Seventy-two percent of defendants in the sample group for the study faced drug charges, and more than 60 percent of them were not charged with any other crimes. Of all the defendants from 2005, almost 80 percent were African-American, 13 percent were Latino and 8 percent were white.
African-American defendants were more likely than any other group to see their cases directed through the criminal court system. Among those without prior convictions, whites were more likely to be sentenced to probation or court supervision for a Class 4 drug charge than minorities. Across the state, African-American defendants were nearly five times more likely than whites to get prison time for such a possession charge. In Cook County, African-Americans facing Class 4 possession charges were eight times more likely to receive prison sentences. For all criminal charges, Africans-Americans in Cook County were almost twice as likely to go to prison.
The study says that a “limited analysis” of the availability of court-ordered addiction treatment programs showed that, generally, white defendants had more access to them. Availability varied greatly by region, however, so the report called for more research on that subject.
Hunter says the statistics showed large gaps in the data collection throughout the state. She says methods varied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Some data did not include racial information at all.
“Everybody’s collecting data differently. … We need to get these folks together and figure this thing out,” Hunter says. As an example, the report presented the fact that 99 percent of people arrested by the Illinois State Police were classified as black or white, with no other ethnic description. The study proposes creating a task force that could set statewide standards for data collection.
The study recommends that state and local governments do more to use alternative programs that divert some offenders from possible jail time into addiction treatment, such as drug courts and probation for first-time offenders. Baille notes there are successful programs, such as Redeploy Illinois, that keep offenders out of prison. But they are regional and/or cannot accommodate large numbers of offenders. “It’s always a question of scale. …We have great ideas across Illinois. We have great programs across Illinois.” She says judges are hesitant to sentence offenders to treatment when they know there isn’t room in a program and they would have to put offenders on a waiting list. Baille adds that addiction treatment — at $5,000 to $7,000 per person — is much less expensive for taxpayers than a year of incarceration, which she says costs about $25,000 a year per inmate.
Any programs that would require new funding do not appear to be politically viable in the state’s current fiscal climate. The report recommends that a cut of the money that jurisdictions get from assets forfeited in drug cases should go toward treatment programs. Hunter says she plans to start negotiating with law enforcement officials, but she admits it will be an uphill battle because the local money traditionally goes toward police efforts.
In the short-term, Hunter plans to introduce a measure that would allow legislators to attach a “Racial and Ethnic Impact Statement” to any bill that would affect criminal offenses, sentencing practices and parole or probation policies. Hunter says she hopes making legislators consider bills in the context of racial disparities in Illinois’ criminal justice system would help them see the bigger picture. Both Hunter and Baille say part of the problem on the policy end is that legislation is often created to address a specific issue, such as trying to stop drug sales near schools, without considering how it would affect the overall system.
Hunter says that after lawmakers pass such legislation geared toward a specific problem, they rarely revisit the issue to see if the law is accomplishing the original goals and to evaluate any negative unintended consequences. The report recommends Illinois re-evaluate zero- tolerance policies on drug sales near schools to see if they are accomplishing the goal of protecting children.
Rep. Dennis Reboletti, a member of the commission, makes the point that while Illinois should consider diverting funds to treatment programs, individuals addicted to drugs and alcohol must also put in the effort to get healthy. “I believe the problem of the war on drugs is treatment,” Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican, told the Chicago Tribune. “The question is, once they’re in the system, does the person want to take advantage of the treatment? Because not all addicts are willing to get help.”
However, the numbers show that for a variety of reasons, minorities often miss out on taking advantage of alternative programs and avoiding the negative impact that a record of incarceration can have on their chances for jobs and a better quality of life after recovery. “There are certainly opportunities for people to basically turn their lives around,” Baille says.
As long as those chances are out there, they should be available to everyone equally, regardless of race.
Illinois Issues, March 2011