Our View: End Racial Disproportionality in Drug Arrests, Expand Interventions for All Drug Offenders

(Chicago) — According to a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union, and as reported in the Chicago Tribune, African-Americans in Illinois are nearly eight times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though usage rates between the groups are nearly the same. The New York Times notes that these disparities are worst in Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota.

The disproportionality in marijuana arrests is part of a deeper problem in Illinois, where African-Americans are far more likely than whites to be arrested and prosecuted for any drug crime.

A December 2010 study by the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission, a non-partisan group of policymakers and justice professionals, found that arrest data indicated that disproportionality in all drug arrests occurred in 62 of the 102 counties in Illinois, including urban, suburban, and rural areas. Racial disparities for drug arrests varied widely by county but tended to be greater in jurisdictions with smaller populations of nonwhite residents.

In addition, the study noted that the rate of imprisonment for all drug offenses is also substantially higher for African-Americans than for whites, averaging 80 percent of all persons admitted to Illinois prisons for drug offenses.

However, what the recent report on marijuana arrests does not capture is the futility and the wasted money of a law enforcement strategy that arrests, prosecutes, and imprisons non-violent drug offenders versus a public health intervention strategy that deploys – more effectively, efficiently and fairly – drug prevention, drug treatment and other alternatives to incarceration for each and every drug offender.

Non-violent drug arrests that lead to imprisonment annually cost Illinois taxpayers, on average, $25,000, versus $5,000 for drug treatment and supervision.

Rather than unjustly targeting African-Americans for drug offenses, the State of Illinois and local governments should expand the use of diversionary programs and sentencing alternatives –including day reporting centers, drug schools, specialty courts, first offender probation, and designated program supervision – for all drug offenders.


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