Editorial: Use drug field tests to improve justice, save money

SHARE Editorial: Use drug field tests to improve justice, save money
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Cook County Jail | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

In Cook County, it’s possible for someone to sit in jail for a couple of weeks on a drug charge even if they had no drugs. That’s not good, obviously, and cries out for reform.

EDITORIAL

In every other county in Illinois, police do a field test when they stop someone suspected of possessing illegal drugs. If the substance in question doesn’t test positive for an illegal drug, the person who has been stopped is free to go. But in Cook County police departments, including Chicago, a suspect sometimes must wait in jail — if he can’t make bail — until the suspected cocaine or heroin is analyzed at a state crime lab and, only then, a probable cause hearing can be held.

Cook County is different because of a court ruling dating back decades to a time when reliable field tests didn’t exist. But this is no historical curiosity. In Cook County, justice is denied, and injustice gets expensive. It costs taxpayers an estimated $143 a day to keep someone in Cook County Jail.

Even if the person truly was holding drugs, the current system could be more just. When the police can do an immediate field test, rather than send the suspicious material off to the lab, the time between an arrest and a probable-cause hearing becomes much shorter.

A bill in Springfield that has passed the House and is in the Senate would create a one-year $30,000 pilot program that would bring field testing to Cook County for marijuana, cocaine and heroin. It is an opportunity to save money, reduce the jail population and even ease the load at the state crime lab. The field tests are simple and cheap: Police put the suspicious substance in a vial of chemicals that costs $1.25 or so, then pull the substance back out and see if it has changed color. It’s about as easy as a home pregnancy test.

If a drug field test is positive, a case can be disposed of more quickly, easing the backlog in the courts. The tests are not as accurate as the crime lab, but they are good enough for Illinois’ 101 other counties, and the courts have deemed them sufficient.

Chicago Police already are using field tests when they stop someone for 15 grams or less of marijuana, and a spokesman said the department is studying whether field tests for other types of drugs are feasible.

The Legislature’s pilot program would go a long way toward answering that question. It should be started without delay.

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