A new study of young drug offenders in Cook County, Illinois, (greater Chicago) has found startling differences in the way white and non-white offenders are treated. Of 393 teenage drug offenders bound over to adult court in 1999 and 2000, only 3 were white. Last year, of 259 bound over, one was white. Cook County is 47.6% white.
According to the 1999 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, white teenagers are one-third more likely to have sold drugs than African-American teenagers.
The study, "Drugs and Disparity: The Racial Impact of Illinois' Practice of Transferring Young Drug Offenders to Adult Court," was prepared by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice's Justice Policy Institute for Building Blocks for Youth, an alliance of children's advocates, researchers, law enforcement professionals and community organizers seeking to protect minority youth in the justice system and promote rational and effective justice policies.
Based on data from state criminal justice agencies in Illinois and national corrections databases, the study zeroed in on the Illinois practice of automatically sending 15- and 16-year-olds charged with certain drug offenses to adult court. Under Illinois' automatic transfer laws, youths charged with drug offenses that occur within a thousand feet of a school or public housing project are automatically sent to adult court.
"These transfer laws arise from the legislature's colorblind attempt to address the impact of illegal drugs in the public schools and public housing," James Compton, president of the Chicago Urban League, told a Wednesday press conference, "but the impact of these laws is anything but colorblind. Illinois has some of the most racially disparate outcomes in the nation."
Compton pointed to the devastation afflicting some inner city neighborhoods as a result of drug law enforcement. "There are some communities in Chicago where more than half the black male youth now have felony records," he said. "State and local officials are contributing to the incapacitation of future generations and exacerbating the problems of crime, addiction, poverty, hopelessness, and despair in the black community. The Urban League supports repeal of those sections of the transfer laws that have disparate racial impact on our youth. We will join with other organizations in a grassroots campaign for a more fair approach to juvenile justice in Illinois," he vowed.
Randolph Stone, director of the University of Chicago's Mandel Legal Aid Clinic, elaborated on the differential impact of Illinois' automatic transfer laws. "This law sets up is two systems of justice," he told the press conference. "For committing the same offense, kids in the inner city get adult felony convictions, while kids in the suburbs get juvenile court and treatment. These are prosecutorial decisions," said Stone, "and they have a huge impact. These kids won't get a second chance, they can be denied financial aid for college, they'll have restricted opportunities for employment. Those kids most in need of a second chance, of an opportunity for rehabilitation or treatment, are shunted aside, labeled as felons."
The study also found that while African-American youth make up 15.3% of the state's youth population, they constitute 59% of all teen drug arrests, 85.5% of all teens automatically transferred to adult court, and 91% of all teens sent to state prison from Cook County.
"The data clearly show that the enormous impact of prosecution, imprisonment, and collateral consequences for young drug offenders is not borne equitably by youth of different races and ethnicities," said Justice Policy Institute analyst Jason Zeidenberg, the author of the study. "Illinois' 16-year experiment with automatic transfer for drug offenses does not affect suburban or rural white youth in a way even remotely comparable to the way it affects urban minority youth," he added.
The Sentencing Project's Marc Mauer explained how a supposedly colorblind policy created such racially disparate results. "This law illustrates two significant problems in the criminal justice system. First is the failure by policy-makers to project forward what the impact of the policy will be. Inner city kids are hit hard because urban areas are more dense, so there is a greater likelihood that drug offenses will occur within a thousand feet of a school or a public housing project," said Mauer.
"Second, this illustrates the abuse of the criminal justice system as a means of dealing with complex social problems. Once again, we see kids of color put through the justice system as adults, while in the suburbs it is dealt with in juvenile court or not handled as a criminal justice problem at all. This is a two-tiered system of justice where the same behavior is handled in different ways," he explained.
The Rev. Charles Collins, head of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, cut to the heart of the issue. "Can Illinois afford to have a juvenile justice system that is separate and unequal?" he asked. "Whatever the legislature's intent, we see here the law of unintended consequences at work. There is no redemption, no second chance for the youth that enter the adult criminal justice system."
"We must pray and encourage our legislature to find the moral fortitude to stand up and repeal this law," he concluded.
The study is available at http://www.buildingblocksforyouth.org online.