A new report confirms that nonwhite residents in Illinois bear the brunt of the war on drugs, from arrests to sentencing.
From arrests to sentencing, the war on drugs in Illinois hammers minority communities especially hard, a new analysis called the "Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study" shows.
One of the top -- and most distressing findings -- in the report is that nonwhites were arrested for drug-related offenses at rates that outstrip their share of the population in 62 out the state's 102 counties. Nearly three-quarters of the arrests were related to drug possession.
The trend was especially pronounced in "jurisdictions with smaller populations of nonwhite residents," according to the study. In downstate Iroquois County, for example, nonwhites made up 5 percent of the population in 2008 but represented 36 percent of those arrested on drug charges in 2005.
The problem exists in urban areas as well: while 46 percent Cook County's more than 5.2 million residents in '08 were nonwhite, they comprised 76 percent of drug arrestees three years earlier. A chart included in the report demonstrates the trend in several places:
The study shows that disparities in who is arrested for drug-related crime extend into court systems, as well.
While cautioning that some of the data is incomplete, the report nonetheless found that statewide, African American defendants facing a Class 4 drug possession charge were sentenced to jail at a rate nearly five times greater than whites arrested for the same offense. Class 4 possession is the least severe of Illinois' felony drug charges.
"The disproportionate odds of nonwhites moving from the arrest stage to later stages in the process (specifically, prosecuting and sentencing to prison) are only partially explained by the racial imbalances at arrest and remain after statistically accounting for the selection bias at each stage," the report states. The arrest patterns then make it more likely that nonwhites go to jail, as they are stuck with a criminal history. "These unequal outcomes in the court system compound the disparities at arrest in a vicious cycle inasmuch as the probability of arrest increases with the presence of a criminal record."
Other new findings in the study include:
The study is primarily based on information about all 42,297 drug arrests in 2005 that researchers obtained from the Illinois State Police. Information about Cook County drug sentencing is based on a random sample of 5,000 drug and non-drug criminal cases adjudicated in its courts that same year.
In spite of arrest and sentencing disparities, major racial and ethnic groups use drugs at roughly the same rates. "[W]ithin racial/ethnic categories, the percentages of illicit drug use in the past year are highly comparable for whites, African Americans, and Latinos in Illinois: 2 percent, 1 percent, and 1 percent, respectively (illicit drugs without marijuana) and 4 percent, 5 percent, and 2 percent, respectively (illicit drugs with marijuana)," according to the report.
The findings in the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study confirm a disturbing reality about drug-related arrests and incarcerations that a number of other reviews have also found over the years.
In Illinois and other states, the consequences of mass drug-related incarceration are well documented, and include poorer health, a lack of marriageable men, and a loss of economic opportunities, among other social strains, in minority communities.
Ten recommendations are included in the report.
Members of the general assembly, the report says, should be able to attach a "Racial & Ethnic Impact Statement" to criminal justice-related bills and policies; a new task force to collect better data is called for; and "drug-free zone laws" must reviewed to gauge their effectiveness in protecting children from drugs.
Other recommendations would help those arrested but not convicted for drug crimes and ex-offenders who have left the prison system.
The State of Illinois should prohibit including "drug-related arrests that do not result in conviction in criminal histories collected for employment-related purposes," one of the recommendations states. And some arrestees should have their records automatically expunged and sealed for Class 4 felony possession charges or convictions.
In terms of the state's fiscal policy toward incarceration, the state needs to "establish budget policy and priorities to promote full utilization of existing diversion programs or alternatives to incarceration," including a program called Adult Redeploy. To quote at length from the discussion in the study about this final point:
"[The recommendation] reflects a philosophical shift toward prioritizing limited state resources to addressing the causes of criminal behavior and the attendant disproportionate impacts on minority communities, and away from paying for the results of not addressing that behavior. This shift has been adopted by 14 states currently pursuing a strategy known as Justice Reinvestment, wherein external consultants work closely with state policymakers to advance fiscally sound, data-driven criminal justice policies to break the cycle of recidivism, avert prison expenditures, and make communities safer.
Malcolm Young, a criminal justice researcher at Northwestern University who did not participate in putting the disproportionate justice study together, called its findings important and unfortunate, but not surprising. He said that more needs to be done at the front-end to keep drug users out of the criminal justice system.
That isn't an issue for wealthier people. Users from high-income communities have multiple -- "10 or 15 or 20" -- opportunities to pay for private drug treatment programs and then fall off the wagon, Young said. Their financial asset allow them to get help then relapse without involving the police or the courts. Poor users, often minorities, don't have those options.
A court like Cook County's drug court might extend a few chances for a low-income user the police arrest to seek public treatment, Young said, but if there are multiple relapses his or her problem then becomes criminalized. "The response system very quickly becomes the criminal justice system," he said.