An Illinois state panel found Monday that Illinois blacks convicted of low-level drug possession offenses are much more likely to be sentenced to prison than whites. According to the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission, 19% convicted of drug possession were imprisoned, while only 4% of whites were.
The commission was formed in 2009 to examine incarceration rates between the races. Legislation to create it was sponsored in the state Senate by Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago), who co-chairs the panel.
"It's always disappointing to know the true facts," Hunter said in remarks reported by the Chicago Sun-Times.
The sentencing disparity comes despite research that shows that blacks and whites nationally use illegal drugs at roughly the same rate, said Pamela Rodriguez, president of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, a Chicago-based nonprofit that led the commission’s research. She cited a 2008 federal study that 10.1% of blacks and 8.2% of whites reported using illegal drugs.
Rodriguez said the disparity could be partially explained by differences in education and economic status, but that blacks were also more likely to conduct drug transactions in public spaces, where they are easily targeted by police. "Where you have greater enforcement, you have greater arrests," Rodriguez said. "Where you have greater arrests, you have greater prosecutions."
The commission called for funding alternatives to imprisonment as a way to reduce the disparity. The state has programs in place, including drug courts and first-time offender probation, but it needs new revenue to fund them adequately.
Sen. Hunter suggested that the commission would look at using part of local jurisdictions' drug forfeiture funds to pay for alternatives to imprisonment. That would be preferable to leaving them in the hands of police forces, which use them to arrest more drug offenders and seize more funds to arrest more drug offenders and seize more funds in a vicious cycle of drug law enforcement.