State budget cuts, other issues, may limit efficacy of drug policy change

Demonstrators organized by Black Youth Project 100 stopped traffic on their way to the Chicago Police Department headquarters to protest racial bias in marijuana arrests on Aug. 26, 2014.

Photo by Emily Jan

Demonstrators organized by Black Youth Project 100 stopped traffic on their way to the Chicago Police Department headquarters to protest racial bias in marijuana arrests on Aug. 26, 2014.

Advocates for drug treatment services applaud the Cook County State’s Attorney’s decision to prosecute fewer drug cases and steer more people to treatment. But with a 20- percent state budget cut looming over their services, they question how Anita Alvarez will pay for the diversion programs at the heart of her plan.

On Monday, Alvarez, whose office has been criticized for its handling of minor drug cases, outlined a plan to stop pursuing criminal charges for  most non-violent, low-level drug offenses and instead divert people to treatment and alternative sentencing programs.

About 15,450 or 5 percent of all misdemeanor cases in Cook County criminal court last year were for marijuana possession, and about 9,800, or 25 percent of all felony cases were for Class 4 possession of a controlled substance, the lowest felony category, according to the State’s Attorney’s office.

“I think the idea of the program is terrific,” said Jeffrey Collord, director of development and external affairs at the Haymarket Center, Chicago’s biggest provider of substance abuse and mental health treatment. “But we are concerned about the resources when we’re seeing cuts from the state.”

Collord said his organization is facing a $2.7 million loss in funding, which means the center could end up serving 600 fewer clients.

Haymarket was one of two organizations a spokesman for Alvarez’s office mentioned as a likely partner for the initiative, which went into effect on Monday, though details are still being fleshed out. The other organization, Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, is a liaison between courts, drug offenders and community-based treatment programs that offer alternatives to incarceration. Like Haymarket, TASC also is bracing for budget cuts.

“We are very happy to see additional programs and efforts to divert people out of the criminal justice system who do not need to be there,” TASC spokesperson Daphne Baille said. “But we need the resources in the community to be able to handle what’s anticipated to be an increased demand in services,” she said, referring to the State’s Attorney’s plan.

Aspects of the program are unclear, including how it will be funded and how many people will be eligible for diversion. Alvarez said Medicaid could pay for some of the costs that would arise from sending more people to treatment and other programs.

SAO Policy Changes

Infographic by Asraa Mustufa

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The new policy, which comes as Alvarez faces re-election next year, targets first-time drug offenders and repeat offenders who don’t have a history of violence. Under the change, prosecutors won’t press criminal charges for possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana for people with fewer than three prior arrests or citations for similar charges. Prosecutors would dismiss charges against offenders once they complete a drug education program.

They would also send people facing felony charges for possession of marijuana and other controlled substances to alternative prosecution programs, including a treatment program for repeat drug offenders. In addition, Alvarez said her office won’t press criminal charges for possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana against juveniles with fewer than three arrests or police contacts for similar offenses.

The policy shift is an admission of what criminal justice experts and some elected officials have stressed for years: It is more costly to incarcerate people arrested on non-violent, low-level drug charges than it is to treat them. And incarceration does not help people overcome drug addiction, but feeds a revolving door in and out of the criminal justice system.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has been a powerful advocate for more diversion programs, but a spokeswoman for her office said she was not consulted by Alvarez. Officials with Cook County Jail said Alvarez didn’t talk to them prior to announcing the policy change either.

“I am pleased to see that the State’s Attorney has finally recognized what many of us have been saying for years,” Preckwinkle said in a statement.

She said drug policies are funneling too many non-violent drug offenders, mostly young men of color, into the criminal justice system.

Race has long been a factor in drug policy debates. The Black Youth Project and other local activist groups have decried the disparities in marijuana arrests between black, Latino and white neighborhoods,  which have continued even though a city ordinance allows police to issue tickets instead of making arrests.

A 2014 report by the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy stated that most marijuana arrests happen in neighborhoods that are 90 percent or more minority, primarily on the South and West sides. Fuller Park, East Garfield Park, West Garfield Park, North Lawndale and Washington Park topped the list of community areas with the highest arrest rates.

Kathleen Kane-Willis, director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University, said Alvarez’s new policy doesn’t address the targeting of marijuana users in black neighborhoods and the disproportionate number of black people in the county jail. Despite racial disparities in arrest rates,  Kane-Willis said, “Everybody uses weed at about the same rate.”

Aggressive policing in black neighborhoods results in sweeps and more arrests of non-violent offenders, she said. Class also plays a part. “It’s the intersection of race, poverty and neighborhood,” she said. “We are not seeing as many African Americans from the Loop being arrested for these kinds of offenses.”

Racial disparities could still play out around which felony offenders qualify for diversions under the new policy, Kane-Willis said, because black people have a disproportionate amount of contact with police for drug offenses and are more likely to have prior felony drug charges.

At Monday’s news conference, Alvarez said  the policy of punishing low-level drug cases had failed.

“We are continuing to see the same individuals charged with low- level drug crimes, revolving in and out of our criminal justice system with no meaningful impact or outcome,” she said.

A 2013 investigation by The Chicago Reporter found that Cook County’s dismissal rate for misdemeanors is among the highest in the nation. Many of the cases were drug related.

SweepingStreets_graphicsBetween 2006 and 2011, about 151,000 drug offenses were dismissed, while only about 18,000, or 12 percent, resulted in convictions, the investigation found. The arrest are part of a “wink-and-nod agreement,” the investigation said, between police and prosecutors to attempt to stem more violent crimes by cracking down on non-violent crimes.

A Reporter analysis found that taxpayers spent an estimated $796 million on arrests, prosecutions and detentions in these dead-end cases between 2006 and 2013.

Alvarez said the new policy would reduce the consequences of incarceration, including unemployment, and help break the cycle of incarceration for repeat offenders while allowing the county to spend money fighting more serious crime.

The new policy does not end arrests for low-level drug offenses. “I do want [police] to continue to do what they’re doing, so we can get these people services that they need,” Alvarez said at the news conference.

Kane-Willis said the policy won’t reduce police cost for arresting and transporting people to jail when their cases are likely to be dismissed or simply not prosecuted. The county still incurs cost for detaining a person, even if for only a few days.

Not to mention the impact on the person who is arrested. “The arrest does have a significant impact on someone’s life,” Kane-Willis said. “It can deny them housing. It shows up on a background check.”

Preckwinkle said changing state law would be a more effective approach to handling low-level drug offenses.

Much like an executive order by the president, Alvarez’s policy can be undone by a successor.

“We cannot rely on policies that are subject to change based on public pressure or who is in office,” Preckwinkle said. “Instead we must change our laws to ensure that reforms are permanent and not subject to the discretion of one actor in a complicated system.”