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Alvarez says not prosecuting minor drug crimes doesn’t mean end to arrests

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said Monday her newly unveiled decision not to prosecute low-level drug crimes isn’t a message to cops to stop making drug arrests.

At a news conference, Alvarez said her policy is intended to provide treatment for Cook County’s drug abusers. She’s looking to Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act to cover those costs.

Asked whether the Chicago Police Department and other police agencies in Cook County should stop arresting people for minor drug possession, she gave an emphatic no.

“I do want them to continue to do what they’re doing, so we can get these people the services that they need,” Alvarez said.

“I am not saying they should just stop all arrests [of low-level drug offenders],” she said. “This is giving people a chance — a third, fourth chance, albeit.”

Diverting drug users to social programs will allow the criminal justice system to focus more on violent offenders, Alvarez said.

Alvarez also denied her new policy is an attempt to fend off any possible election challenge from a candidate backed by Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, an advocate of diverting drug offenders from the criminal justice system.

“I’m ready for whoever wants to take me on,” she said, adding that her office has been crafting the new policy for about 18 months.

And Alvarez said she isn’t taking a step toward seeking legalization of drugs.

“This isn’t being soft on crime at all. I think it’s being smart. And I’m not advocating for legalization or encouraging people at all to be drug users.”

In a funny moment, Alvarez admitted she wasn’t aware of the irony of announcing her decision on April 20 — the national holiday for pot smokers.

“April 20 to me is just that, April 20,” she said. “I had no clue what 4-20 meant.”

(The day gained its distinction because “420″ is slang for smoking marijuana.)

Under her policy, prosecutors will no longer proceed with misdemeanor charges of possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana for people with fewer than three arrests or municipal citations for similar charges.

Those with three or more arrests or citations will be referred to “drug school” and have their cases dismissed once the requirements are met. If they don’t complete the school or opt not to go, their cases will be prosecuted.

Also, everyone who faces the lowest level of felony charges of possession of a controlled substance or marijuana — except those with major violence in their recent criminal backgrounds — will be routed to a county alternative prosecution or sentencing program, including a newly created Drug Deferred Prosecution Program. Class 4 felony drug possession cases — the least serious category — made up 25 percent of Cook County’s felony cases in 2014, according to Alvarez’s office.

The program will locate treatment and social services for people charged with possession of marijuana; a gram or less of a controlled substance; or five or fewer tablets of a controlled substance, Alvarez said.

She said Timothy Evans, chief judge of Cook County, will ask judges to direct people into the diversion programs at their bond hearings to keep them out of jail.

Alvarez said her office will continue its ongoing policy of not proceeding with charges against juveniles for possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana when they have fewer than three arrests or police contacts for similar charges.

Chicago Police Department spokesman Martin Maloney said Alvarez’s plan is a “welcome step.”

“Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel has long believed that reducing penalties for nonviolent, low-level drug offenses saves taxpayer dollars and, more importantly, keeps nonviolent offenders from a lifetime in the criminal justice system,” Maloney said.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart also released a statement supporting Alvarez’s policy, saying he “applauds the state’s attorney’s efforts to find a more productive approach to low-level, non-violent drug offenses.”

Last year, 15,449 misdemeanor pot cases and 9,790 felony drug cases were filed in Cook County. Not all of those cases will be subject to Alvarez’s new policy because some include other serious non-drug crimes.

Last year, the Chicago Police Department arrested 11,088 people for possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana and issued citations to 4,032 people. Chicago cops started writing pot tickets in 2012 when Emanuel pushed the City Council to approve an ordinance that would allow it.

Contributing: Jon Seidel