A commission convened to examine the impact of Illinois' drug laws on racial and ethnic groups released its findings Jan. 31st, during a news conference at the James Thompson Center. The results of the study show African Americans in Cook County were eight times more likely than Whites to be sentenced to prison if convicted of a Class 4 possession, low-level drug crime. Statewide, the data also indicated that sentencing was racially disproportionate based on the rate of drug arrests in 62 of the state's 102 counties. The findings of the study prompted several recommendations to close the disparity gap.
"We need to change certain policies and practices so that justice is administered fairly across racial and ethnic lines, said State Sen. Mattie Hunter, of Chicago, who served as co-chair of the commission. "We need to divert non-violent drug offenders from expensive incarceration to rehabilitation programs, such as court-ordered drug treatment." The study also found that Afri- can American families are being affected by the sentencing laws, especially when it comes to Black males. Based on testimony during community hearings from family members and social workers, the study shows that families are affected when their loved ones return from prison and have a hard time finding legitimate employment. "There is a public safety issue here, but we also have to look at the families that are being destroyed because their parents are not in the household," Hunter said.
An unnamed local business owner suggested to the commission the creation of a special class of contracting provisions, similar to current minority- and women-owned business provisions, for employers who hire formerly incarcerated people. Social service providers who testified for the study also said the problem of drug crimes need to be addressed on a more holistic approach. They say there is too much focus on law enforcement and punishment rather than treatment for those struggling with addiction, as was recommended by the commission. Pamela Rodriguez is the president of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC). She said the yearly cost of incarceration for one inmate is more than $25,000 whereas a drug treatment program for the same time frame is only $7,000. She said with the state being in such a financial crunch, not only is it a more effective and ethical way of looking at the problem, but it is sounder from a financial aspect as well.
"As a community-based agency that has worked with thousands of criminal justice clients since 1976, TASC strongly supports the recommendations presented in this report," she said. "One of those recommendations is that there is a need for better data collecting because we need a more complete picture to see how widespread this problem is. And the solutions need to be as comprehensive as the problems." Rodriguez added the cost savings of alternative sentencing reduce the disproportion of ethnic minorities being sent to prison, in addition to saving money. She believes the current drug laws are ruining Black and Latino communities across the state, but stopped short of blaming any one entity. She said instead it is a "system failure" that needs to be addressed. The commission also recommended that drug seizure monies, which currently go to local law enforcement agencies after the successful prosecution of a bust, have a fixed portion go to support treatment and diversion programs. The Crusader asked Sen. Hunter what amount of money Illinois law enforcement agencies receive from these drug seizures.
"We have no idea," Hunter responded. "That is one of the best kept secrets around. When it comes to those forfeiture funds it's kind of like 'hands off' to us. That is going to be a battle to find out that amount and how it is used. But, we hope to sit down with a lot of people to discuss this report while moving forward and perhaps then we can answer that question." Attorney Standish Willis, who also served on the commission, said there is a direct correlation between the findings in this report and how African Americans are more likely to be sentenced to the death penalty in Illinois. Earlier this month the state legislature voted to abolish the death penalty, but Gov. Pat Quinn has yet to sign the bill.
"African Americans and Latinos are filling the prisons so some of the problems pointed out in this report will address many of those questions of arrest and prosecution in more serious offenses," Willis said. "But we need more data. We cannot fashion policy to address the issues of the death penalty or drug crimes without the right data." Dr. Terry Solomon serves as the executive director for the Illinois African American Family Commission. She said one of the significant recommendations of the commission that needs to be implemented is not using felony drug convictions for employment opportunities. She said by doing so society is not allowing people who paid their debt to reestablish themselves among the working class, thus forcing them back into a life of crime, poverty or both.
"Drug use is a mental health issue so we need to start using mental health approaches to treat these issues as opposed to just incarcerating people," Solomon said.
Illinois State Sen. Mattie Hunter talks to the media about the state commissioned study on how drug sentences are given out based on race.