Blacks Far More Likely Than Whites To Be Jailed For Low-Level Drug Crimes


An African-American convicted of a low-level drug crime in Cook County is eight times more likely than his white counterpart to face prison time for it, according to a new report released yesterday.

The report, published by the Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission, analyzed arrest data from 2005, the most recent year that complete data is available. It was commissioned by the General Assembly in 2008 to research the notion that minorities -- and particularly young black men in inner cities -- were disproportionately subjected to drug arrests, prosecution and sentencing.

That's just what the report found.

Class 4 possession laws, the least severe felony charges, accounted for the majority of racial disproportionality in incarceration, the Commission writes. In Cook County, home to Chicago, Class 4 possession accounted for the majority of all arrests in 2005. Few of those charged only with Class 4 (and not with some other crime, drug or violent) were sentenced to jail terms. But the overwhelming majority of those who were, by an eight-to-one ratio, were black.

Most Class 4 cases were dropped, at roughly equal rates among nonwhites (45 percent) and whites (40 percent). But of those cases that were continued, white defendants were nearly twice as likely (36 to 19 percent) to be sentenced to court supervision or probation.

Critics of the study were quick to point out its limitations. Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez pointed out that a larger proportion of minorities were repeat offenders, which could have contributed to their outsized representation in prison. And the Associated Press quotes Republican State Rep. Dennis Reboletti, saying that variables like gang affiliation weren't taken into account.

Still, none of these criticisms addresses the underlying fact: the eight-to-one statistic controls for arrest record, meaning that even among suspects with comparable criminal histories, the nonwhite suspect is far more likely to go to prison than the white one.

Pamela Rodriguez is the president of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, a group that provided research for the study. She spoke to the Chicago Sun-Times about some of the report's policy recommendations.

The commission suggested the full funding of alternative services to sentencing as a way to close the disparity between the two races.

Rodriguez said Illinois has quality alternative services for first-time drug offenders, including the use of drug courts and first-offender probation, but said the state would need to find new revenue to fund these services adequately.

Indeed, one program lauded in the report, Adult Redeploy Illinois, is set to run out of funding in two years. And with the state's budget mess only beginning to come under control, ARI and programs like it are hanging on by a thread.

Meanwhile, as Black History Month begins, Chicago is reminded that its ugly racial disparities are far from history.

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