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State Commission Highlights Racial Bias in Drug Sentencing

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Blacks charged with low-level drug crimes in Illinois face prison sentences almost five times greater than whites, according to a nonpartisan state report released Monday.

According to the Illinois Disproportional Justice Impact Study, 19 percent of blacks charged with low-level drug possession were given prison sentences, while only 4 percent of whites received a prison sentence. The study uses data from 2005, the most recent year the data was available.

The study was released by State Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-IL) who said at a press conference, “This is only the beginning. We now have data.”

The report also said that nonwhites were arrested for drug possession at a disproportional rate in 62 of 102 counties. The number of nonwhites arrested in Illinois for low-level drug possession was more than double their representation in the general state population.

The commission recommended the use of alternative sentencing. According to the report, whites are more likely to be sentenced to court supervision or probation, with blacks being three times more likely to be sentenced to prison.

“It is so much cheaper for us, as a society, to treat drug addiction than to incarcerate people,” said Hunter, who is a certified drug and alcohol treatment counselor.

One of the commission’s state-level policy recommendations was to create a Racial and Ethnic Impact Research Task Force to collect and analyze data regarding racial inconsistencies in criminal law.

“We hope to sit down with lots and lots of people to show the findings of our report,” Hunter said.

One of the major problems cited by commission members was the inconsistency of  the data.

“What it takes to collect and aggregate the data– it takes an investment,” said commission member Pamela Rodriguez. Rodriguez is the president of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC), a nonprofit that works with drug treatment issues.

Rodriguez said there are two counties, Moline and Winnebago, working to modernize their data systems to make it easier to share. The commission hopes to acquire either public or private funding to create a more integrated data system for the state’s criminal justice system.

The report also talks about the effect a felony conviction has on an individual and his family.

“When you have a felony conviction, it affects the whole quality of life,”  said Terry Solomon, a member of the Illinois African-American Family Commission.

Data from the report suggested that children with an incarcerated parent are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior.

The report recommends that drug charges be taken off the criminal history database used by employers, in order to give drug offenders a better chance at employment.

The release of this report puts Illinois on a short list of states taking steps to deal with racially unfair criminal justice systems.

“I’m proud that Illinois is taking a giant step,” said Attorney Stan Willis, a criminal rights attorney for 30 years and a member of the commission.

The problem of racial bias in drug sentencing is an issue that is gaining momentum. In August of last year, a federal law was passed that closed the gap between sentencing for crack possession and powder cocaine possession; two similar drugs that are endemic to different racial and socioeconomic groups.

According to Hunter, some action will have to take place on a federal level, but Illinois can also change its laws. She said she would be working with other members of the state legislature to update sentencing laws for drug offenses.

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