Study: Racial disparity in drug sentences
By Stephen Di Benedetto Staff Reporter January 31, 2011 5:38PM
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
SPRINGFIELD — African Americans in Illinois convicted of low-level, drug-possession charges face prison time at a far greater rate than whites convicted of the same crimes, a state panel disclosed Monday.
The Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission, formed in 2009, found that 19 percent of black defendants charged in 2005 were sentenced to prison after being charged with a low-level drug possession felony.
Only 4 percent of white defendants went to prison under the same charges, the group reported in a newly released study on the issue.
The disparity grew worse in Cook County where black defendants arrested for the low-level charge were eight times more likely to be sentenced to prison than whites, the group found.
“It’s always disappointing to know the true facts,” said Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago), the panel’s co-chairman and the Senate sponsor of legislation that created the commission to look into incarceration rates between the races.
Despite the disparity, Pamela Rodriguez, president of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, a Chicago-based non-profit that led the commission’s research, said blacks and whites nationally use illegal drugs at roughly the same level.
A federal study in 2008 found that 10.1 percent of all blacks reported using illegal drugs compared to 8.2 percent of all whites.
Several reasons explain the disparity, she said, including economic and educational factors; chiefly, however, blacks are more likely to conduct drug sales in public areas, where police target.
“Where you have greater enforcement, you have greater arrests,” Rodriguez said. “Where you have greater arrests, you have greater prosecutions.”
The commission suggested the full funding of alternative services to sentencing as a way to close the disparity between the two races.
Rodriguez said Illinois has quality alternative services for first-time drug offenders, including the use of drug courts and first-offender probation, but said the state would need to find new revenue to fund these services adequately.
Hunter said the commission would like to key on portions of local jurisdictions’ drug forfeiture funds, which are seized assets from drug sales and trafficking cases.
Doing so would allow the state a way to fund those services, but Hunter said the commission has heard back from few jurisdictions about how much money actually might be in those coffers.
“We are going to give it our best shot,” Hunter said.
The commission took two years to write the report at a cost of about $40,000.