After two decades of steadily toughening laws, Illinois now puts more people in prison for drug crimes than any state except California, according to a study released Tuesday by Roosevelt University.
The report also found that more people are being incarcerated for possessing narcotics than for selling them and that the state's prisons hold about five black inmates convicted of drug offenses for every white inmate -- one of the largest racial disparities in the country.
The findings cast doubt on the fairness and effectiveness of Illinois' long campaign against illegal drugs, said Kathleen Kane-Willis, a researcher at Roosevelt's Institute for Metropolitan Affairs.
"Just locking folks up is not reducing our drug problems, but it's sure costing us a lot of money," she said. "I think we need to take a different tactic and start funding treatment at higher levels so people don't have to go to prison."
The raw numbers, experts say, underscore the scope of the issue. In 1983, 456 people convicted of possessing or selling drugs were behind bars in Illinois, making up 5 percent of the total prison population. By 2002 -- the latest year for which detailed federal statistics on imprisonment are available -- the number had soared to 12,985, or 38 percent of all inmates.
The report counted people as incarcerated for drug crimes only if a drug charge was their most serious offense. But many had prior convictions as well.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Illinois locked up more people for selling drugs than for possessing them. But by 2002, the reverse was true, according to the Roosevelt study.
Walt Hehner, deputy chief of narcotics prosecutions for the Cook County state's attorney's office, said that it might be partly due to drug dealers agreeing to plead guilty to lesser possession charges.
Hehner added that inmates imprisoned for low-level drug crimes usually have a plethora of earlier arrests and convictions. Cook County has several programs to offer people drug treatment instead of prison time, but those efforts can fail, he said.
Sometimes defendants plead guilty rather than go into drug treatment because they can spend less time on parole than they would being tracked in a treatment program, said Cook County Public Defender Edwin A. Burnette.
Using a U.S. Department of Justice database to compare state prison populations, the report found that in 2002, Illinois incarcerated more drug criminals than some larger states, including Florida and New York.
Even Texas, a state with 10 million more residents and a formidable reputation for being tough on crime, locked up fewer users and sellers.
Arthur Lurigio, a criminal justice professor at Loyola University Chicago, said Illinois' oversize population of drug offenders could be due to the dynamics of the Chicago narcotics market, where dealers and their customers do business in public.
As crack cocaine overran Chicago and other urban areas in the 1980s and 1990s, Kane-Willis said, the General Assembly changed laws to mandate stiffer penalties -- including prison time -- for people caught with even small amounts of narcotics.
"Legislators responded punitively," she said. "Instead of making treatment more available, they made prison more available."
John Giles, 42, who has been incarcerated a number of times on drug charges since the mid-1980s, was released Aug. 11 after serving two years for possession.
Giles, who is staying at St. Leonard's House, a West Side recovery home, said a prison term can be beneficial for the addict.
"A lot of people need to see how it really is so they don't want to go back there again," he said. "But if people were getting treatment, I don't believe the prison system would be the way it is."
U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), who is active with prison issues, said harsher sentences only partly explain Illinois' exploding population of narcotics offenders. The state's drug problem -- especially in the Chicago area -- seems to be more severe than in other parts of the country, he said.
"There is a level of tolerance [for using and dealing], which then allows the drug trade to flourish, and there is a lack of treatment, which then keeps a steady supply of would-be customers," he said.
The Roosevelt report also looked at Illinois' racial disparity for people incarcerated on drug charges. Its ratio of roughly five black prisoners for every white inmate is higher than any state's except Maryland's.
Kane-Willis said that because Chicago's drug markets operate in predominantly black communities, users and dealers who live in those neighborhoods are more apt to be arrested.
"The police have a smaller likelihood of picking [whites] up because they're in and out," she said.
Even some federal officials have admitted over the years that the drug war has tended to target "what was easier," by focusing on more visible drug crimes rather than going after white and black drug users equally, Burnette said.
Lurigio said one nuance in state law, which stiffens the penalty for drug possession or delivery near a house of worship, may also disproportionately affect blacks.
"In the African-American community, there are a lot of neighborhood storefront churches all over the West and South Sides," he said. "If you sell drugs just about anywhere in those communities, you're going to be in proximity to one of those areas."
The report recommends increasing drug court programs that send users to treatment instead of prison, creating better drug education courses for schools and improving social services for ex-cons.
One of those former prisoners is Ted Brown, 44, who has twice been incarcerated on drug charges.
After being busted with nearly a pound of cocaine, Brown, who was selling and using the drug, spent almost all of the 1990s behind bars. He served another three years on a separate cocaine charge and was paroled Aug. 11.
Also a resident of St. Leonard's, Brown said he sought out Narcotics Anonymous meetings during his last stint in prison and thought such programs should be mandatory for all inmates with drug problems.
But it would be even more helpful, he said, if addicts were sent to treatment instead of the penitentiary.
"Honestly, I think the whole system is a joke," he said. "I don't think it's helpful at all in deterring people from doing it. You take a sick individual and lock them up with other sick individuals and tell them to change. Are you kidding me?"
Illinois Ranks High For Drug-Crime Imprisonment
Illinois is second-highest state in the U.S. for the number of drug-crime incarcerations, according to a Roosevelt University study. The state also had one of the largest disparities between black and white offenders and imprisoned more people for possessing drugs than selling them in 2002.
Top 10 States Incarcerating Drug Offenders
For 2002; by states with population more than 1 million
Rank/State -- Total Rate -- Incarcerated Per 100,000
1. California -- 39,878 -- 114.0
2. Illinois -- 12,986 --103.2
3. New York --11,610 -- 60.6
4. Texas --11,425 -- 52.6
5. Ohio -- 9,077 -- 79.6
6. Florida -- 7,942 -- 47.6
7. New Jersey -- 6,836 -- 79.7
8. Louisiana -- 6,130 -- 137.0
9. Georgia -- 5,995 -- 69.9
10. Missouri -- 5,955 -- 104.8
Number Of Black Inmates Per White Inmate
For five states with largest disparities
1. Maryland -- 8.0
2. Illinois -- 4.9
3. S. Carolina -- 4.5
4. Virginia -- 3.7
5. N. Carolina -- 3.6
By drug offense
Sale / Possession
1983 -- 264 -- 180
1993 -- 4,336 -- 1,976
2002 -- 5,761 -- 6,999
Source - The Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University
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