Low-Level Drug Offenders to Get Treatment, Not Jail

The overhaul of the office's drug policies is to address drug use and addiction as a public health issue

Cook County will no longer prosecute most misdemeanor marijuana possession cases and will steer many nonviolent felony drug cases in and around Chicago to treatment and away from jail, the state's attorney said Monday — joining the ranks of prosecutors taking similar steps to deal with what they say is an ineffective and expensive war on drugs.

"The methods in which we are handling low-level drug cases here in Cook County are simply not working," State's Attorney Anita Alvarez told reporters. "Under the current policies and practices we continue to see the same individuals revolving in and out of our criminal justice system with no meaningful impact or outcome and at a significant cost to taxpayers."

Alvarez did not have any details on how much money the new policy will save the county, but said given that last year her office saw 15,000 misdemeanor marijuana cases and low-level drug cases amounted to 10,000 of the 40,000 felony cases handled by the office, the savings will be substantial as well as help the county address its "drug epidemic."

Further, she said that because nonviolent offenders charged with low-level felony heroin, cocaine and marijuana possession will be given the opportunity to get into programs and out of custody almost immediately, they will be less likely to lose jobs, housing and custody of their children for the simple reason that they are not sitting in jail for days and weeks at a time.

Among the changes Alvarez is making is the creation of alternative programs in the hopes of getting people help in shaking addictions that result in repeated arrests, along with a plan to divert low-level juvenile drug offenders to community-based organizations for drug education and mentoring.

With the announcement, Alvarez is the latest prosecutor to say publicly that current drug laws do little good for low-level offenders, both for those who are arrested and to offices like hers that spend millions of dollars and hours prosecuting the same people over and over.

"This really is an acknowledgement that the traditional law enforcement remedies for people with drug addictions who act out criminally because of those drug addictions is simply not successful," said Joshua Marquis, a district attorney in Oregon's Clatsop County and a board member on the National District Attorneys Association. "Prosecutors are on the front lines of this, we are sitting six feet from these people in court and we just realized that putting the casual and incidental drug addict is not a good use of money and resources."

Others have reached the same conclusion. In New York, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson announced in July that he would stop prosecuting most people arrested on low-level marijuana possession charges, saying, "We are pouring money into an endeavor that produces no public safety." Four months later, New York's police commissioner, William Bratton, said that officers who catch people with small amounts of marijuana would issue a summons instead of making an arrest.

Prosecutors say there is evidence that such efforts are effective. In Seattle, for example, the University of Washington earlier this month released a report that found that participants in a program that is aimed at keeping addicts and prostitutes out of jail and in housing counseling and other programs were 60 percent less likely to be arrested than those in a control group.

The move resonated with area authorities with Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart applauding the policy change and Chicago police calling it a "welcome step."

"Mayor Emanuel has long believed that reducing penalties for non-violent, low-level drug offenses saves taxpayer dollars and, more importantly, keeps non-violent offenders from a lifetime in the criminal justice system," the Chicago Police Department said in a statement. "The States Attorney's action is a welcome step in the work being done by the City and the County President's Office to reduce sentences for some offenses while focusing on the most dangerous gun crimes. The City's cannabis ticketing initiative has already kept thousands out of jail, and the Mayor looks forward to working with the state to further reform the lopsided sentencing guidelines."

Illinois NORML also supported the policy shift, noting its impacts on the "inequality between treatment of cannabis consumers and alcohol consumers is costing taxpayers dearly."

“Today is a good day for Chicagoans and all residents of Cook County. Hopefully this will send a message to law enforcement officers that low level cannabis crimes should not be a priority," Dan Linn, executive director of Illinois NORML, said in a statement.

Still, some say the move isn't enough.

"While today's announcement by Cook County States Attorney Anita Alvarez is a welcome departure from past practices in her office, more needs to be done at the local and state level to address the inequities of our criminal justice system,"

Commissioner John Fritchey said in a statement. "I appreciate that States Attorney Alvarez is finally moving in the right direction by reforming low-level drug possession laws that have not made practical or economic sense for decades. But seven years in office is a long time to finally recognize that our criminal justice system operates unjustly and without accomplishing its stated goals."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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