Offering treatment, not jail, for more drug users is right step

Giving more people a chance to stay clean instead of locking them up and burdening taxpayers makes sense.

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A man caught with small baggie of heroin is taken into custody by Chicago police officers in the 3600 block of West Flournoy Avenue in 2018. He was offered the chance of going into drug treatment instead of jail.

A heroin user is taken into custody by Chicago Police officers in the 3600 block of West Flournoy in 2018. He was offered the chance of going into drug treatment instead of jail.

Frank Main / Sun-Times

One in seven people in the country will develop a substance use disorder during his or her lifetime.

But 90% of those who suffer from addiction are not getting treatment, a landmark report by U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy revealed in 2016.

When these drug users end up in jail, the option to seek help is even more out of reach, and people end up hurting themselves or dead.

That is why we commend the Chicago Police Department for taking the right step by expanding eligibility for diverting drug users into treatment instead of charging them with felony drug possession.

Editorial

Editorial

At some point, we hope the results are encouraging enough that this alternative can expand to even more of those who are victims of the drug trade.

Keeping more non-violent drug users out of Cook County Jail will alleviate overcrowding at the facility while giving them a chance to achieve sobriety and start fresh.

Minor drug possession cases routinely get thrown out in the Cook County judicial system, but the arrests create obstacles, like keeping people from getting a job, according to a 2021 investigation by the Sun-Times and Better Government Association.

Those cases also cost a lot to taxpayers: More than $100 million was spent on briefly housing people in Cook County Jail on low-level drug possession charges between 2013 and 2018, the Sun-Times and BGA found.

Giving more people a chance to stay clean instead of locking them up and burdening taxpayers makes sense.

Before the change, people caught with one gram of cocaine or heroin were eligible for the citywide “narcotics arrest diversion program.”

Now, those arrested with up to two grams of those narcotics and other substances, including fentanyl, can also be eligible unless they have an arrest warrant or convictions for gun possession, sex offenses and violent crimes, the Sun-Times’ Frank Main reported.

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The diversion program has produced mostly promising results so far, according to the University of Chicago Crime Lab, which has been evaluating the initiative.

Matt Richards, the city’s deputy commissioner of behavioral health, also pointed out that those participating in the program were far less likely to be arrested again than those who weren’t enrolled.

Not everyone will succeed. Addiction is difficult to overcome.

But why not give more drug users the opportunity to at least try?

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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