In Cook County, the judicial system has an unwritten policy that routinely dismisses minor drug possession cases. These dead-end arrests are the result of a longstanding, commonly understood rule among prosecutors not to pursue criminal charges against anyone caught with user-level amounts. Police and judges also recognize this policy.
But, as a result, tens of thousands of Chicagoans — mostly Black men — have been jailed in the past two decades on drug charges everyone knew from the beginning were never going to stick, an investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times and the Better Government Association has found. Many of those arrested have lost jobs, homes and relationships as well as their freedom and dignity.
In addition to the human toll, this churn of dead-end arrests costs taxpayers tens of millions of dollars every year.
Sun-Times and BGA reporters teamed up to better understand the impact on dead-end arrests on drug users, their communities and the criminal justice system. They also traveled to Oregon to examine the impact of its recent drug reform, which decriminalize drug possession and offer users the chance to get help.
As civil rights activists in Illinois push for policy changes, Oregon’s experience shows reform doesn’t always lead to its intended consequences — at least not right away.