Putting an end to dead-end drug arrests is the right move

A new state law is a sensible recognition of this fact: Incarceration is of little or no help when people are arrested for having small amounts of drugs.

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****FILE ART OF COOK COUNTY JAIL**** 02-15-06 Cook County Jail, 26th and California, Chicago - Razor-sharp wire lines the west side fence at Cook County Jail on S. Sacramento Wednesday in Chicago. Photo by John J. Kim/Sun-Times

Razor-sharp wire lines the west side fence at Cook County Jail.

Sun-Times files

One doesn’t have to look far to find evidence that incarceration is not a solution to society’s drug problem.

Locking up men and women in federal prison for drugs hasn’t led to lower rates of substance abuse, arrests or overdose deaths, according to a 2018 brief by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Nor has it curbed recidivism, and the majority of inmates behind bars for such crimes are lower-level offenders — not dangerous, high-ranking drug kingpins who deserve prison time.

“Although no amount of policy analysis can resolve disagreements about how much punishment drug offenses deserve,” the authors of the Pew brief concluded, “research does make clear that some strategies for reducing drug use and crime are more effective than others, and that imprisonment ranks near the bottom of that list.”



The smaller the quantity of drugs, the less sense it makes to put people behind bars. And a provision in Illinois’ SAFE-T Act will allow many of those arrested for possessing small amounts of drugs to avoid jail, as Frank Main of the Sun-Times and Casey Toner and Jared Rutecki of the Better Government Association reported Sunday.

Under the new Pretrial Fairness Act, a police officer who catches someone with a small amount of drugs will have discretion to release them, issuing them a citation to show up in court on a specific date within 21 days. If they are held in a police lockup, they must appear before a judge within two days. (The law is set to go into effect on Jan. 1.) 

The move is a positive step, in line with other solutions like Cook County’s drug court program for defendants struggling with substance abuse. Arrestees have a chance to avoid jail, on a case that’s likely to be tossed out anyway. Police are freed up to spend more time solving violent crime instead of processing low-level, non-violent suspects.

As the Sun-Times and BGA found in a 2021 investigation on dead-end drug arrests, thousands of Chicagoans who are arrested for Class 4 drug offenses — the lowest level of felony — end up having their cases dismissed. These “dead-end” drug arrests are an unjust, wasted effort. A police officer spends time on an arrest that gets tossed. The suspect’s life takes a hit while they’re in custody — jobs are lost, cars are impounded, family relationships can unravel.

Yet the practice has been common for years, as the Sun-Times and BGA found in its investigation of 280,000 drug possession cases spanning nearly two decades.

Take the case of Raymond Galloway, a cook who wasn’t able to work for six months after he was arrested twice in 2021 for drug possession. “I can’t pay the phone bill,” Galloway said back then. “I’m two months behind on my rent. Child support, I got kids to take care of. I can’t do anything.”

Both cases ended up being thrown out, like tens of thousands of other cases — the vast majority involving Black men like Galloway — over the years

The Sun-Times and BGA asked readers about drug arrests, and most respondents said they oppose the current law making possession of small amounts of narcotics a felony and would favor making such offenses a misdemeanor or a ticketing offense.

One Cook County judge, however, has a valid point. He told the Sun-Times/BGA reporters that arrestees might not show up for court if they’re just given a citation, and recommended that they be required to report to court immediately to be screened for placement in a drug treatment program. That’s a step worth considering, if court absences become a problem, to make sure people are offered help right away.

The War on Drugs has mostly been a failure. Society can win at least one of the smaller battles by supporting strategies that steer the lowest-level offenders into treatment for their addiction.

Drug abuse is already a dead end. It shouldn’t be made worse with a dead-end arrest.

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