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We have to find a better way to deal with low-level drug crime

The current system levies a huge toll on personal lives, as well as for every taxpayer who has to foot the cost.

Gail Richardson (in red), an outreach worker the West Side Heroin and Opioid Task Force, provides a man with Narcan Nasal Spray, 0.4mg/ml of Naloxone and a syringe to treat drug overdoses after the agency set up a table near Roosevelt Road and South Albany Avenue on the West Side on Sept. 23.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Often, large systems keep grinding on in illogical and futile ways because no one understands how much their day-to-day actions hurt average people.

An investigation by Sun-Times reporter Frank Main and Better Government Association reporters Casey Toner and Jared Rutecki lifted the veil on one such system: the long-running practice of arresting people for small amounts of illegal drugs, only to quickly release them without any criminal charges.

Many cops go on making the arrests because it is a way to respond to complaints from Chicago residents about brazen drug-dealing in their communities. But many judges, prosecutors, police officers and others in the system recognize how counterproductive it is to arrest people for small, user-level amounts of illegal drugs.

To dip into our bag of cliches, it does more harm than good.

The first story in the investigation, published in the Sunday Sun-Times, documented just how much harm the practice causes to the people caught up in this pointless system — most of them Black men who have always paid the highest price for our society’s many missteps in the so-called ‘war on drugs.’

For anyone living just a few dollars ahead of financial disaster, a short time in jail — even though they are released without a conviction or going to trial — can cost them their job. They might lose their homes. They might lose their personal relationships. If their car is impounded, they may have no way to scrape together a couple of thousand dollars to get it back. Their lives are ruined.

It also costs taxpayers. The Sun-Times and the BGA calculated that, between 2013 and 2018, it cost more than $100 million to briefly jail people on low-level drug charges, excluding medical care costs.

After analyzing 280,000 drug possession cases over nearly two decades of court data compiled by The Circuit — a collaborative of news organizations — the Sun-Times and BGA found that about half were dropped at their earliest stages. That dismissal rate has soared in the most recent years. In 2018, 72% of such cases were dropped.

Instead of letting this system lumber along, damaging people’s lives left and right, it’s time to fix it. The investigation found that tens of thousands of Chicagoans have been put behind bars on drug charges for a short time, even though everyone in the system knew the charges would be dropped. That’s a huge toll on personal lives, as well as for every taxpayer who has to foot the cost.

Decriminalization, foregoing arrests

Legislation that would make possession of under three grams of heroin or methamphetamine and under five grams of cocaine a misdemeanor instead of a felony passed the Illinois House in the spring session, but has gone nowhere in the Senate. We’re told that’s because violent crimes have started to spike, alarming politicians who don’t want a vote easing criminal penalties — even for non-violent, low-level drug offenses — to be used against them in the next election.

We don’t know if the new limits in that legislation are too high, but it’s clear Illinois needs to follow the lead of states that have decriminalized small amounts of illegal drugs. Now, possession of even a trace of such drugs as heroin is a felony.

Another possibility is police could just stop arresting people for user-level amounts of illegal drugs. Police in 2016 began a diversion program to allow some people caught with small amounts of drugs to go into treatment instead of the courts, but the program benefits only a small fraction of arrestees. Expanding the program might make a dent in the problem.

Good solutions, though, aren’t easy to find. Since February, police in Oregon, using a new law, have written 1,300 tickets for drug possession instead of arresting people. Hundreds of millions of dollars were set aside to expand drug treatment. But records show few drug users have entered treatment to the extent that reformers had hoped.

Overdoses have skyrocketed during the pandemic. The New York Times reports more than 100,000 Americans died of overdoses in the 12 months ending in April, a record high and 30% more than the previous year. Imaginative new policies treating drug addiction as a health problem instead of a crime are needed.

Yet year after year, the Illinois system has marched along, throwing people into jail without providing a solution to the scourge of drugs and drug crime.

More of the same is not an answer.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.