When prosecutors start tossing drug cases, could thefts go down?

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Shoplifting and other petty crime associated with narcotics abuse could decrease because of Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s new policy to stop prosecuting minor drug cases, according to her office and the head of a large drug treatment referral agency.

Under the policy announced last week, Alvarez’s office will no longer prosecute most misdemeanor marijuana cases and will send nonviolent offenders charged with low-level felony heroin, marijuana and cocaine possession to drug treatment instead of jail.

Pam Rodriguez, CEO of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities Inc., said the expanded treatment could keep more people from turning back to drugs and committing property crimes to feed their habits.

“Everything I have read says crime will not go up — it will stay the same or go down because of this,” she said.

Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for Alvarez, agreed, saying that driving down retail theft, burglary and other property crime is one of the long-term goals of the policy.

Rodriguez said her employees met with Alvarez’s staff Thursday to discuss their expanding role under the policy. TASC places people in drug-rehab programs and monitors their progress.

Rodriguez said she believes the number of narcotics offenders diverted to “drug school” or community-based treatment could double to more than 12,000 a year because the policy. Alvarez says Medicaid and the Affordable Health Care Act will pay for the additional treatment.

Alvarez is getting ready to send a memo to prosecutors outlining how they are supposed to carry out the policy. Daly said drug-case dismissals will begin “soon,” possibly as early as next week.

Alvarez’s office has been meeting with judges and the public defender’s office and plans to reach out to suburban police chiefs, Daly said.

About half of the people TASC assists have a primary substance abuse problem involving marijuana, Rodriguez said.

“Their treatment is very much focused on behavioral change and self-management,” she said.

But heroin is a huge problem, too.

“We have one of the longest lasting love affairs with heroin addiction in Cook County and Chicago,” Rodriguez said. For heroin users, “we have medications to treat the addiction and there are effective behavioral interventions.”

In 2011, 259 people out of every 100,000 people in Chicago visited emergency rooms for heroin use, compared with 145 per 100,000 in New York City, according to the latest federal statistics. Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin is scheduled to oversee a hearing this week on ways to curb heroin abuse in Cook County.

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