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Illinois: People of Color More Likely to Face Prison for Drug Crimes


An Illinois commission issued a report concluding that people of color facing low-level drug charges receive harsher and more frequent penalties than whites facing the same charges do, the Associated Press reported Jan. 31.

Nearly one in five African-Americans charged with Class 4 drug felonies in Illinois was imprisoned, compared to four percent of whites with the same charges, according to the study by the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission (DJIS). Disparities were found in 62 of the state’s 102 counties.

To address the problem, the commission recommended greater use of treatment and other alternatives to prison to save money and reduce drug use. Inmates serving time in prison for Class 4 drug felonies accounted for 4.4 percent of the state’s prison population last year.

Pam Rodriguez of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, said that people of color might go to prison more often than whites for the same charges because they could have difficulty obtaining legal representation, and they might be more likely to accept a plea agreement that would put them behind bars – either because they were unaware of other options, or because poorer communities might have fewer alternatives.

Some commission members disagreed with the report’s conclusions. State Rep. Dennis Reboletti (R-Elmhurst) said that the study did not consider “gang affiliation” as a factor that might explain the disparities, according to the Associated Press. Anita Alvarez, state’s attorney for Cook County, said that because arrested “minorities” were more likely to be repeat offenders, they were more likely to go to prison.

A pilot program called Adult Redeploy Illinois saved the state about $4.5 million last year by diverting 157 offenders from prison, according to Jack Cutrone, who directs the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.

The program is federally funded with grants scheduled to end in 2013.

Rodriguez also said that it cost Illinois around $25,000 a year to house an inmate, but only $4,000 to $7,000 to provide treatment.  

“We went for years being tough on crime,” said Cutrone. “We need to be smart on crime.”

The commission’s executive summary (PDF) and full report (PDF) are available online.

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