October 10, 2011

Paying a high price

Chicago’s prosecution of drug offenders is inefficient and discriminatory

$142—that’s enough money to subsidize the lunches of several dozen schoolchildren. Or purchase a slew of new books for the public library. Or keep an extra cop on the beat at night.

It’s also, incredibly, the cost of locking up a person for a single night in jail in Chicago. More than 23,000 times last year, these expensive lockups occurred not because the arrestee had committed murder, rape, or theft, but because he or she was caught with a small amount of marijuana.

Local judges frequently dismiss low-level drug charges at a preliminary hearing, but by the time this hearing occurs, the accused may have spent anywhere from a couple of days to three weeks in jail. The end result? Hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars funneled towards keeping people locked up unnecessarily.

This summer, Cook County faced a budget shortfall estimated at $315 million. The city of Chicago’s deficit is projected to be more than $635 million next year.

Forced by circumstances into a budget-cutting frenzy, local governments have cut millions, adversely affecting the quality of life for teachers and other public employees, students, the elderly, transit riders, and highway users. In fact, it’s hard to conceive of anyone in the Chicago area who isn’t being hit in some way or another.

It is outrageous, at a time when funds are being stripped from essentials like education, that we continue to squander money on pointless arrests. On pure economic utility grounds, Chicago cops should stop arresting people on minor possession charges.

Yet the waste of public funds, bad as it is, is the far lesser of two evils associated with drug arrests in Chicago. The numbers tell the story. In 2009 and 2010, in a city that is one-third black, nearly 80 percent of arrests for possession were of blacks. Of the small fraction of cases that were not dismissed, 89 percent of people who pleaded or were found guilty were black, 9 percent were Hispanic, and only 2 percent were white.

Either the arrest record reflects the reality, and only 2 percent of the pot smokers in Chicago are white, or there is a deeply insidious set of circumstances at work here. Any rational person can guess which one it is.

Put frankly—equal justice under the law—a concept so important to our legal code that it is carved into the front of the Supreme Court building, is a beleaguered notion in this city. In black neighborhoods, cops often make drug arrests that stem from infractions like minor traffic violations or jaywalking.

Many convictions result from police officers stating that the arrestee, upon seeing them, makes the improbable move of throwing the drugs on the ground in front of them (which means no search was necessary, and more importantly no inconvenient constitutional issues surrounding the search can come up in court). To be arrested for marijuana charges as a white person, one generally has to do something like run a stop sign while smoking a joint in the process.

Some will argue that the disparity is a result of police being more on the lookout for drug use in areas with high crime and known narcotics—areas which  tend to be predominantly black—rather than overt racism on the part of the police. Regardless of motives, this behavior still places an unjust burden on the black community.

There are some claims to be made that making small time drug arrests is part of the “broken window theory”: if cops target people for minor violations, it engenders a sense of lawfulness in the community, which drives down crime rates. But do these arrests not also engender suspicion of the police, and undermine its effectiveness in troubled neighborhoods? Furthermore, couldn’t the time it takes the cop to process the offender be better spent on the beat, targeting more serious crimes?

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who until last year represented part of Hyde Park as an alderwoman, made national headlines this summer by advocating for a change in local drug policy. She’s called the War on Drugs a “failure,” arrests for small amounts a “waste of time,” and has tried to convince the police department to issue citations instead of jailing people. She even went as far as to publically state her support for the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana. It’s an uncommonly brave position for a politician to take, and she should be commended for it.

Perhaps Chicago, where the economic and social justice arguments against these unnecessary arrests seem particularly acute, can be a test case for reform. I suspect doing so would save money and bolster the cause of equality without affecting public safety.

President Preckwinkle is on target, and it’s time our police department, mayor, and other public officials join her in rethinking current policies.

David Kaner is a second-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.