City still separate, unequal

By Darryl Holliday

The Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study has recently proven what many experts have said is obvious—that black residents are disproportionately prosecuted, sentenced and imprisoned compared to their white counterparts.

The authors of the study, The Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact StudyCommission, are recommending ways for the city to modify policing strategies that can result in unequal numbers of black residents sent to prison in Illinois.

“We certainly have seen similar findings looking at the national data and occasionally the local data, so in a sense it confirms some of what we’ve seen in broad terms,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a national criminal justice reform organization.

In Cook County, black residents arrested for Class 4 drug possession—the least severe of felony charges—were eight times more likely than whites to be sentenced to prison and twice as likely to be sentenced for all criminal charges, according to the study. A Class 4 felony carries a possible sentence of 1—3 years in the Illinois prison system.

Blacks in Cook County are almost twice as likely to be prosecuted for any crime, according to the report. In 2005, nearly 80 percent of individuals entering the felony court system were black, followed by 13 percent Latino and 8 percent white.

“There are a lot of consequences that flow out of disproportionate policing in certain communities,” Mauer said.

According to Mauer, the value of the study lies in its presentation of localized experiences on a day to day basis.

According to the report, the Cook County criminal courts are inundated with criminal courts are inundated with low-level drug cases. When sampled, more than 60 percent of drug defendants in the Cook County system were charged with Class 4 possession.

Because studies show that blacks and whites use drugs at roughly the same rate, according to John Maki, coordinating director of the John Howard Association, evidence suggests the disproportionate number of blacks jailed for low-level drug crimes indicates a systemic problem.

In 2003, blacks in Illinois were four times as likely to be imprisoned for drug crimes than their white counterparts and nearly twice as likely nationwide.

Though blacks make up roughly 15 percent of the state’s population while whites represent 79 percent, the most current data indicates there are nine blacks in prison for every one white individual in Illinois.

Of Illinois’ 102 counties, 62, including urban, suburban and rural areas, were found to have disproportionate drug arrests.

According to the study, the reasons for these disparities are numerous, including law enforcement policies and the ways drugs are sold and consumed.

“To use an analogy, I think drug convictions are the gateway drug into prison,” Maki said. “Once you have a low-level conviction, the cards start piling up

against you.”

According to the report, the effects on individuals are pervasive and long-term, including increased difficulty finding employment, deleterious effects on health, community instability and a decrease in funding for community-based correctional alternatives.

“The study was really important, but I think people in the field have seen it before,” Maki said. “It’s great to have the hard data, but especially if you’ve been inside the prisons or jails, this is what you see—it’s how it works.”

According to Maki, the question is how to shape a long-term solution.

Among its recommendations, the report lists the need for a racial and ethnic impact task force dedicated to the evaluation of state-level research. It also recommends the state establish automatic expungement and seal Class 4 felony charges in which the individual successfully completes participation in a program.

The report follows a recent trend of greater attention being paid to what many experts call “mass incarceration” of U.S. residents.

According to Mauer, policies such as the War on Drugs have resulted in the prosecution of an increasing number of residents, making the U.S. one of the highest incarcerators in the world.

“As a country, as a whole, I don’t think we’ve really begun to tackle this problem.” Maki said. “A lot of it is unconscious, but we have to fight it.”