Wednesday 2 February 2011

Justice system unfair to drug offenders

We wish we could say we were surprised by a new report showing that minorities in Illinois are more likely than whites to be packed off to prison for low-level drug crimes.
Sadly, though, it’s a consequence of having a criminal justice system that places greater emphasis on incarcerating nonviolent offenders than trying to rehabilitate them.
The latest evidence of that was released Monday by the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission.
The state-appointed panel found that African Americans convicted of low-level drug possession charges in 2005 were five times more likely to be sentenced to prison time than whites convicted of the same crimes. In Cook County, there was an eightfold difference.
One factor is that blacks arrested for drug crimes were more likely to be repeat offenders, a disparity that can probably be explained by minorities being more likely to conduct drug sales in public areas targeted by police.
More troubling was the panel’s finding that non-white first offenders were less likely to participate in prison diversion programs, in part because of the limited availability of these services.
That’s where we have a real problem.
Illinois’ soaring prison population costs taxpayers more than $1.5 billion a year. And the state is doing a lousy job of rehabilitating inmates, as evidenced by a three-year recidivism rate of about 50 percent.
The state can make improvements in both areas by increasing funding for prison-alternative programs such as drug courts and substance abuse treatment for nonviolent offenders. Each prison inmate costs the state about $25,000 a year, according to Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities. The cost of treating a low-level drug offender, on the other hand, ranges from $4,000 to $7,000.
Better alternatives to prison are essential.

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