Are Illinois’ Drug Laws Racially Biased?

by Mary C. Piemonte 

State Commissioner Marian Perkins discusses proposed changes to current drug laws while state Rep. Art Turner (D-Chicago) and Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago) look on. Photo by MARY C. JOHNS

Why are African Americans in Illinois nine times more likely to be incarcerated than whites?

A new state commission is trying to find the answers to this question and devise some solutions.

The Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission held the first of several public hearings in February in response to a 2007 Sentencing Project study showing Illinois was the 14th worst state in the nation when it came to the odds of African Americans going to prison.

The Crisis of Recidivism

On Feb. 22 at the James Thompson Center, co-chairs Illinois Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago) and state Rep. Arthur Turner (D-Chicago) and other commissioners listened to the testimony of business people, government officials, university researchers, attorneys and former offenders about the consequences of mass incarcerations.

National surveys consistently show that African Americans, whites and Hispanics are about equally likely to use drugs but the consequences for drug-related crime fall particularly on young African American men from poor, urban communities, according to the commission. The commissioners were particularly interested in the different ways drugs are sold in urban versus suburban neighborhoods. Urban sales generally take place on the street, near schools, churches and other drug-free zones.

Data provided by the commission shows that in Illinois in 2005, African Americans made up 15 percent of the population but 61 percent of the prison population.

From 1990 to 2000, the number of African Americans admitted to prison in Illinois for drug offenses grew six-fold. From 1994 to 2003, the drug arrest rate in Cook County increased 26 percent and the drug arrest rate outside of Cook County more than doubled, according to the Center for Health and Justice’s report, “No Entry: Improving Public Safety through Cost-Effective Alternatives to Incarceration in Illinois.”

In their written report provided to Residents’ Journal that day, the commission stated, “Disenfranchising certain segments of society lead to undemocratic outcomes that affect all of society….The expense of disproportionate incarceration affects every taxpayer in the country.”

Hunter told RJ during a break from the hearing that she was aiming to repeal some the laws affecting African Americans and Latinos.

“First, you need to raise the issues, address the issues then see what they can do to resolve them,” Hunter said. “There’s a large budget that’s dedicated to the criminal justice system as it is, and we just simply need to figure out what can we do to relieve the overcrowding in the jails, the high arrest rates of African Americans and Hispanics, because most of the arrests are felony convictions.

“We do know what has come out of this hearing today is that the existing laws that are on the books have a lot to do with the arrests around churches and schools. Because of the density of urban America, we have a lot of churches and we have a lot of schools. Like churches, you may have three churches on one block in the Black community or in a Hispanic community.

“These people are selling drugs where they live, in their neighborhoods. They aren’t going to the North Side or downtown.

“So, we’ve got some state laws and also federal laws that we’ve got to deal with.”

Potential Solutions

One criminal justice reform advocate said the focus should be on a stronger police presence in low-income communities versus increasing prison sentences.

“Evidence to indicate a disproportionate application of the criminal justice system against communities of color is readily available by looking at the racial composition of both Cook County Jail and the Illinois Department of Corrections,” according to Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project.

Testifying before the commission, Siska said that while a lot of data proves that a disproportionate racial impact does exist, researchers lack access to data that would allow them to understand the role that race plays at every level.

“Using Chicago and Cook County as an example, we currently have no way of examining as a whole why detectives within the Chicago Police Department and prosecutors within the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office decide to pursue or drop a case.

Both have very wide discretion and to my knowledge, their decisions are not recorded in a manner that would allow an analysis to be conducted to look for any disproportionate impact.”

Siska “strongly” advised the commissioners to partner with criminal justice agencies in Illinois and craft legislation to ensure that every agency in the criminal justice system examines where discretion plays a role.

“The reality is that without this information, we are always going to be wondering why things are happening without ever being able to produce a social science-based study to tell us why,” he said.

Jerry I. Siegel, president of Midway Moving & Storage, hires ex-offenders. Siegel said his “crews have assisted Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) residents coping with bursting water pipes in the middle of the night.”

He added that more businesses should provide training to ex-offenders and hire more of them like he does to curb the recidivism rate.

Siegel’s moving company is located on the city’s West Side in a disadvantaged neighborhood.

Almost 50 percent of his workforce is made up of ex-offenders. Siegel cautioned the commissioners that without well-funded training programs and jobs for ex-offenders, there would be little chance of reducing the recidivism rates.

Siegel added that ex-offenders should get public transportation stipends for them to get to and from work, and that funding should go to non-profits that assist ex-offenders with issues that affect employment, such as housing, IDs, counseling and obtaining their General Education Diplomas (GED).

The programs also should have money for incidentals like work uniforms and meals to help ex-offenders find a job and keep them there.

Siegel said that when they first start working, many ex-offenders use their whole paycheck to pay for their uniforms.

Ex-offenders should also be assigned cell phones or companies like Midway should get funds to provide ex-offenders with a phone so they can be reached for emergencies or last-minute job assignments.

Siegel also urged the use of tax credits for companies that hire ex-offenders.

“If companies are given enough incentives in form of stipends, allowances, tax benefits and support, they will be willing to give new opportunities to ex-offenders who are leaving the correction system,” Siegel stated.

Antoine Day, an ex-felon whose 1990 conviction was overturned, is an outreach coordinator at the Howard Area Community and Employment Resource Center.

Noting that three of his children are currently enrolled in college, he told the commission to consider the positive things many ex-offenders are doing to help one another through positive mentoring programs.

“People are focused on the drugs, and not the solutions,” Day said. “It took an ex-offender to help me straighten up. Our parks are closed. Youth facilities closed. But youth on the corners and liquor stores are everywhere. Once they come out of the County Jail, they are messed up. I know what it’s like. I helped destroy it. But now I’m trying to help fix it.”

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