On Monday, April 20, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez announced three changes in the way her office responds to drug crime. These changes, though neutral on their face, pose a great risk of increasing racial disparity in an already deeply unfair system. Below, we outline her new policy, our questions and concerns, and current pushes for decriminalization happening at the state level in Illinois.
State Attorney Alvarez’ new policy on drug crime:
- Her office will no longer prosecute misdemeanor possession of marijuana under 30 grams for those who have had 2 or fewer citations or arrests on the matter beforehand;
- All offenders charged with Class 4 felony possession of a controlled substance or possession of cannabis, except for those with significant violence in their criminal backgrounds, will be routed to an alternative prosecution program including the newly created Drug Deferred Prosecution Program (DDPP). These would include individuals possessing substances other than cannabis, such as heroin, cocaine, etc.
- And the State’s Attorney’s Office will formalize an ongoing policy of not proceeding with charges against juvenile offenders for the possession of under 30 grams of cannabis and those who have fewer than three arrests or police contacts for similar charges. Instead, the State’s Attorney’s Office promises to work with the Chicago Police Department and community-based organizations to create and implement a juvenile-specific version of Seattle’s successful Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, program.
These new policies come at a time of growing national awareness that responding to drug possession as a criminal rather than a public health problem is failed policy. Current practices have led to overcrowded prisons and jails, wasted resources that should be used toward higher enforcement priorities, lives impaired by a criminal record, and deepened racial divisions.
However, up until now, attempts at correcting this failed policy have only worsened racial disparities. . In 2012, the Chicago City Council decriminalized low levels of marijuana possession by issuing fines rather than criminal penalties. But under existing state law, police can still issue arrests rather than tickets for such offenses, and, as noted in a report of Roosevelt University’s Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, do so in the vast majority of cases. Furthermore, when the decision is made to arrest or issue a fine, it is made predominantly along racial lines. In short, Black Chicagoans have not seen the reduction in arrests that White Chicagoans have.
Concerns About Racial Disparity Under Alvarez’s New Policy
In Chicago, blacks make up only 33% of the population, and yet, 73 % of all arrests are of black people. More arrests lead to more prosecutions despite the fact that blacks and whites use illegal drugs at the same rate. Disproportionate contact with police and prosecutors based on race presents such a stark contrast, that you would think anyone suggesting policy changes would proceed with caution. (Tables on Arrests and Population by Race are included at the bottom of this post, with sources).
Now, the Cook County States’ Attorney has actually suggested decreasing certain penalties for the possession of marijuana in a manner that may further increase disproportionality. She says that when we look for people whose cases should be dismissed or ought to be offered treatment (the new marijuana and juvenile program proposals, respectively), we should look at how often they have been arrested. Thus automatically treatment and dismissal will be offered less often to Blacks and Latinos who on the whole get arrested more often despite similar rates of drug use. Though the number of arrests of Blacks and Latinos will go down the racial disparity between people of color and whites stands to widen. As whites are disproportionately offered treatment and dismissal, the prosecution of Blacks disproportionately increases. Thus a set of terrible outcomes stands to get worse.
We would ask the State’s Attorneys what the expected populations, by race, are expected to be affected by these new policies? And what systems are being put into place to ensure individuals being offered treatment are actually being clinically assessed for their need and being offered the right level of services?
State Level Decriminalization Is Moving Forward
State law may soon change. House Bill 218, introduced by State Representative Cassidy, (D- Chicago) has just passed the Illinois House and has passed the Criminal Law Committee of the Senate. It calls for replacing criminal penalties with civil fines for low level marijuana possession. The proposed legislation has a broad base of support, including the Illinois State’s Attorney’s Association, the Illinois State Bar Association, and the Office of Cook County State Sheriff Tom Dart.
Change begets tough questions and challenges. How will the Chicago Police Department respond to state, not just city, decriminalization of marijuana? Treatment and education services are already in short supply. Where will funding for the services to support alternatives to incarceration come from? Can ways be found for units of government to collaborate in identifying and allocating the services that do exist? How will they insure that treatment goes to those who need it most?
It is promising that the Cook County State’s Attorney is citing the LEAD models of Seattle and Santa Fe. The first full-scale evaluation of LEAD, released last week by the University of Washington, found that that services rather than prison have helped to break the cycle of addiction, joblessness, and homelessness for program participants and reduced recidivism by nearly 60%. LEAD has established a national model for collaboration among law enforcement, human service agencies, and community organizations. The task now is effective implementation of such policies here.
Tables on Disproportionate Impact
2013 Census Bureau Population Estimate – City of Chicago
Street Stops by Race – City of Chicago (four month sample)
|Stops||%||Stops Per 1000|
Analysis of four month period May through August 2014
2014 Arrests by Race – Chicago Police Department
|Arrests||%||Arrests per 1000|
Source: Chicago Police Department
For comparison, the estimated arrest rate for the United States in 2012 was 39 arrests per 1,000 residents.
2014 Cook County Jail Population
|Admissions||%||Admissions per 1000|
Source: Cook County Sheriff
African Americans make up 25% of Cook County’s 5.2 million residents
Individuals from the City of Chicago comprised 63% of jail admissions