State Lawmakers, Criminal Justice Experts to Scrutinize Racial Impact of Illinois Drug Laws

Springfield, IL – State legislative and criminal justice leaders gathered in Chicago on Monday to evaluate the impact of Illinois drug laws on minority communities. Members of the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission will begin work to determine if current state laws and policies contribute to the disproportionate percentages of minorities in jails and prisons.

 The Commission, co-chaired by State Senator Mattie Hunter (D- Chicago) and State Representative Art Turner (D-Chicago), is the outcome of Senate Bill 2476, which passed the Illinois Senate and the Illinois House unanimously last year and became Public Act 095-0995.

 Commission members, named in the law or appointed by the Senate and House leaders, will examine the causes and consequences of findings such as these:

  •  In Illinois in 2005, whites comprised 66% of the general population, African-Americans 15%. That same year, whites comprised only 28% of the Illinois prison population, and African-Americans 61%.[1]
  •  In 2005, African Americans were 9.1 times more likely to be incarcerated in prison or jail in Illinois than whites, ranking Illinois 14th worst in the nation, and well above the national average of 5.6 times more likely.[2]
  •  From 1990 to 2000, the number of African Americans admitted to prison in Illinois for drug offenses grew six-fold from 1,421 to 9,088. In contrast, the number of whites admitted to prison for drug offenses remained relatively stable.[3]
  •  The proportion of African Americans arrested for drug offenses in Illinois increased steadily from 1983 to 1992, from 46% to 82% of those arrested for such crimes. The proportions of whites arrested decreased steadily during those years, from 41% to 11%.[4]

 These significant disparities exist despite the fact that rates of illicit drug use vary relatively little by ethnicity. The just-released 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows rates of past month illicit drug use among persons 12 or older to be 10.1% among African Americans, 8.2% for whites, and 6.2% for Latinos.

“These incarceration trends are disturbing and we need to remedy them,” says Senator Hunter, who co-sponsored the legislation creating the Commission. “When rates of drug use among minorities are relatively similar, but rates of incarceration are wildly disproportionate, we need to understand why that is happening and what we can do about it.”

According to a 2008 report by the Center for Health and Justice at TASC, the disparities in incarceration trends relate in part to changes in the drug laws in the late 1980s. Between 1986 and 1991, the number of African Americans incarcerated for drug crimes rose four times as fast as the number of whites.

“No legislature sets out to make a law that disproportionately imprisons a particular racial community, but I believe our laws here in Illinois do just that,” says Senator Hunter.  “Now we have an opportunity to examine what’s happening and right the wrong.” 

The Commission’s work will yield legislative and other policy recommendations designed to address any disproportionate impact found to result from state drug laws and/or their application.

State budget woes have cut funding for alternatives to incarceration, including the statewide TASC (Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities) program, which places and monitors nonviolent, drug-using offenders in substance abuse treatment as a condition of their probation.

“When the State cuts funding for drug treatment, alternatives to incarceration, and community probation and supervision, the consequences of those cuts are felt by minority communities that are already being affected disproportionately by current drug laws,” says Pamela Rodriguez, president of TASC and its Center for Health and Justice, which is assisting the work of the Commission. “We need to be vigilant about not cutting the very programs that divert nonviolent, drug-using offenders out of the justice system and into community-based treatment.”

The Commission’s work will be informed by advisory groups that examine research, policy, and economic impact. The research advisory group comprises researchers from Loyola University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Roosevelt University, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, and the Illinois Department of Corrections, along with staff researchers and legal and policy consultants from the Center for Health and Justice at TASC.  The policy and economic impact advisory groups will be composed of a variety of university and community members with interest and expertise in economics and public policy related to criminal justice.


[1] U.S Census Bureau and Illinois Department of Corrections, 2005 Department Data.

 [2] Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration by Race and Ethnicity, Marc Mauer and Ryan S. King, Sentencing Project, July 2007.

 [3] The Disproportionate Incarceration of African Americans for Drug Crimes: The Illinois Perspective. Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, Arthur J. Lurigio and Mary Harkenrider, November 2005.

 [4] Ibid.

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