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Counterpoint: Pilot program needs independent assessment

(Photo by LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images)

The Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University supports the intent of House Bill 356 because it is vitally important to reduce the number of days that individuals wait for preliminary hearing. Awaiting results from the Illinois State Police Crime lab creates long delays for defendants and causes overcrowding in Cook County Jail.

But academic literature raises concerns regarding police conducting field testing for suspect narcotics. Police officers must be trained to correctly use and interpret the result of the field tests. Research indicates that false positives in officer-conducted field tests that don’t use spectrometry tend to be high. Field testing of narcotics would not be verified by an independent authority like the Illinois State Police Crime lab as they are now. Considering the complexity of training and the lack of independent verification, field testing might cause testing errors and would leave the entire process up to the police officer, who may or may not be unbiased in the outcome of the field test.

Our study of preliminary hearings for drug cases found that a large number of cases were dismissed. These dismissed cases shared one characteristic, the amount of drugs was very small, under one gram. A typical “dime bag” of cocaine or heroin weighs around one-tenth of a gram. Drug packaging weighs at least one gram. Police may weigh the drugs with the packaging under the pilot program, which could artificially increase the total weight of the “drugs,” perhaps making judges less likely to dismiss these low-level cases. That could mean more people in the Cook County Jail would end up in Illinois’ prisons, if the number of dismissed cases decreases. That would neither be good for Illinois’ taxpayers nor for people who suffer from substance use disorder.

The creation of a personal use misdemeanor for possession of less than one gram of drugs for cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine would align Illinois’ policy with federal policy and with states like California, New York, and Ohio. While this proposed policy would save taxpayers over $58 million over three years, it may not reduce time waiting in jail. To ensure a successful pilot program, the pilot should be subject to independent review and assessment to ensure that the intent of the legislation successfully reduces wait times for preliminary hearings while ensuring that the proportion of dismissed cases remains the same between the piloted areas and the rest of the city.

Kathleen Kane-Willis is director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University.