A system flooded with drug offenders

by Rachel Irwin

"He's not coming home today," the public defender whispers to her client's girlfriend, who sits in the second row of the courtroom.

The young woman begins to cry, rocking the baby in her arms back and forth.

She continues to cry while her boyfriend's case is heard. He was on probation for a drug charge and picked up again, this time for cocaine possession.

Judge Lawrence Fox, who presides over his courtroom like a tough but loving parent, peppers the defendant with questions. Where is he living? Who does he live with? Does he go to school?

Fox notices the crying girlfriend and furrows his brow with concern.

"You’re doing the right thing,” he says to the defendant. "This treatment will be to your advantage."

That's right. The defendant, a 19-year-old African-American who could pass for 15, is not going to prison. Instead, he is sentenced to 18 months of probation, beginning with an intensive 120 days of inpatient treatment, known as Rehabilitative Alternative Probation (RAP).

But because of Illinois' sentencing laws, those 120 days of inpatient treatment will probably add up to more time served away from home than would have been the case had he been sentenced to prison.

As the defendent leaves the courtroom, he turns around and whispers, "I love you, baby," to his girlfriend, who continues to weep.

Outside the courtroom, the woman, also 19, struggles to strap her 2-month-old into the baby carrier.

If her boyfriend is getting treatment instead of jail time, why is she so upset?

"He was my only babysitter," she answers despondently. "Now I'll have to quit school and work to take care of the baby."

A multi-dimensional problem

The defendant is one of the lucky ones. He will receive drug treatment in a Cook County program that has proven to be wildly successful since its inception 10 years ago. He is young, and has the potential to change his life — and that of his burgeoning family’s — for the better.

But in a state that incarcerates more drug offenders each year than any other save California, the successes are often overwhelmed by the crush of a system that still favors incarceration over treatment.

As of June 3, 2008, there were more than 45,000 people serving time in Illinois state prisons. That number has remained relatively stable since 2000.

Because of the constant flow of people in and out of the system, it is difficult to say how many drug offenders are incarcerated at any given time. A Department of Corrections “snapshot” at the end of June 2007 reported that just below 11,000 people, or about 25 percent of the prison population, were incarcerated specifically for drug offenses.

In addition, a report released by the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University, based on the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Justice, reported that the number of people entering prison for drug offenses increased from 628 individuals in 1984 to 12,985 in 2002 — a jump of over one thousand percent.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story.

“When you say drug offenders, that is a pretty loose term,” said Derek Schnapp, spokesman for IDOC. “It has been estimated that around 69 percent of all inmates have a drug-related offense. Their primary holding offense may have been theft [or] robbery, but it was an offense that was related to drugs.”

Policy experts and community groups say that progressively harsh sentencing laws, including more stringent state mandatory minimums and the prevalence of “Drug Free Zones,” especially in minority neighborhoods, have been instrumental in the increase of incarcerated drug offenders. Illinois is second only to California in the number of African-Americans it sends to prison.

“To spend $250 million per year to imprison drug offenders seems like a tremendous waste of money, resources, time and people’s lives,” said Kathie Kane-Willis, the interim director of the Institute for Metropolitan Affairs at Roosevelt University, and co-author of the report cited above. “It doesn’t make our communities safer.”

Politics also tends to play a crucial role in the state’s drug policies, added Lester Finkle, acting chief of the legal resources division for the Cook County Public Defender's office.

“Every politician talks about being tough on crime,” he said. “No one ever says, ‘I passed legislation for drug diversion programs.’ It’s easier to say, ‘Why are we babying them? Just lock them up.’”

Yet other experts contend that the issue is much more complex than harsh laws or overzealous politicians.

“To say we have horrible laws—that’s the easy way out,” said George Williams, director of community partnerships at Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities (TASC). “This problem is multi-dimensional. The problem with saying the laws are just too bad is that there are other factors that go along with that—cultural factors, philosophical factors, societal factors, and racial factors.”

In many instances, Williams said, the initial push for a crackdown on drug activity comes from communities themselves, especially ones that are predominately African-American.

“If you take a particular area, let’s say Austin [on Chicago’s Southwest side], where young men and women are in the street engaging in gang activity, selling drugs and so forth, the initial complaint comes from community," he continued. "Society has played a big role in what has happened to the criminal justice system, but no one will talk about that.”

And although it is technically correct to say that most of the drug offenders inundating the prison system are convicted of low-level Class 4 felonies, most of those individuals already have extensive criminal records and some have been pled down from more serious offenses. It is rare that a first time non-violent offender receives prison time over probation.

“You can get a lot of probation in Illinois before you go to prison [on a Class 4 offense],” Williams said. “You can have a hard time sometimes getting into prison here. But when you are repetitive — four or five convictions, had probation, violated it—at some point in time, the system is going to kick in.”

The instances in which an individual must be sentenced to prison involve the sale of five grams, or the possession of 15 grams, of heroin or cocaine. These offenses fall into Class 1 and Class X felonies, and are considered to be the most serious.

“Class 4s, that’s what is flooding the system,” Williams said. “Class Xs aren’t flooding the system.”

Still, the penalties today are stiffer than they were 25 years ago.

In 1982, for example, the possession of less than 30 grams of cocaine or heroin was considered a Class 4 felony, and the possession of 30 grams or more was a Class 1 felony.

Today, the possession of less than 15 grams of those substances constitutes a Class 4 felony, and the possession of 15 grams or more is a Class 1.

But if it is not that easy to be sentenced to prison, especially on a lower level offense, what accounts for the dramatic increase in incarcerated drug offenders since the 1980s?

“Given the nature of drug activity in Chicago, and nature of policing strategy in Chicago, it’s just a function of what the police are effective at doing,” explained David Olson, chair of Loyola University Chicago's criminal justice department. “The police are effective at arresting people on street corners selling drugs. It’s relatively easy to do that, and it’s not as easy to do that in other states. So why are more people in prison for drug offenses? Because the police have arrested so many more people for drug offenses.”

And while designated “Drug Free Zones” and therefore the imposition of stiffer penalties for offenses that occur within the designated areas have greatly expanded over the years, Judge Fox, who presides over the RAP court, said even those provisions are not as harsh as they seem.

“If you get arrested almost anywhere [in Chicago] you’re close to being within 1000 feet of a park, church or school,” he said. “But those laws, at least in Cook County, aren’t really strictly applied or enforced, and oftentimes those are broken down to lesser charges of probation.”

The Alternatives

In fact, Illinois has probation options that other states do not, including "710 probation," which allows for first-time offenders to have their records expunged.

The state also offers something called “TASC” probation.

If defendants have no prior felony convictions and tell the court they have a drug problem, the judge has to mandate a drug assessment. This usually results in probation conditioned upon treatment, and the defendant is referred to TASC, which oversees the process.

“TASC has diverted hundreds of thousands of folks out of system because of that option over the last 30 years,” Williams said.

The perception that prosecutors are eager to throw people into prison is not quite accurate, said Marc Kammerer, the director of drug treatment programs at the Cook County narcotics prosecutions bureau.

“All of these [state diversion and treatment] programs do not exist without the prosecution,” he explained. “If our prosecutor says no, it doesn’t happen.”

The RAP program, which Kammerer oversees, is open only to non-violent offenders who are sentenced to probation for a low-level drug offense, and then picked up for another offense, thus violating their probation. The new charge is dismissed, and their case is transferred to Judge Fox.

After tracking participants for three years after they completed the program, Kammerer found that 85 percent had no felony drug crime conviction, and total arrests had decreased by 71 percent. Over 500 people have graduated from the program to date, and around 60 to 80 graduate each year.

“The statistics are so incredibly positive that it borders on being embarrassing,” he said. “The program really does work.”

Of course, limited resources and funds mean that the RAP program and other diversion programs, such as the State’s Attorney’s drug school, can only be offered to a small portion of those in need. It is also important to note that drug school is offered only at the discretion of the prosecutor.

“There are lots of good options, just not enough of them,” said Kammerer. “If these [programs] work for three or four thousand people a year, why couldn’t they work for more?”

It’s a good question, and one that might be asked of the limited treatment options that exist inside Illinois prisons.

The state has two prisons — Sheridan and Southwest — that are devoted entirely to treating drug addicts.

Sheridan opened in 2004 and has been lauded as one of the largest prison-based treatment programs in the country. It is designed for males who are serving between nine and 24 months in prison for any crime except murder or rape.

Continue in second column


Rachel Irwin/Medill

George Huff, a former drug addict who now volunteers for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

But these special treatment facilities, along with other smaller programs in prisons throughout the state, only receive enough funding to treat a total of 3,650 inmates per year.

But there are 45,000 inmates in Illinois prisons and nearly 70 percent of those individuals are estimated to need drug treatment, regardless of their offense.

“When you look at the number of people in prison in Illinois, and the number who need treatment and actually get treatment, it’s obvious that there’s an enormous disparity,” explained Olson, who co-authored a 2006 report about the Sheridan facility.

But, he said, there is no question that facilities like Sheridan — solely devoted to treating addicts and providing vocational services — are successful.

“The themes of treatment are reinforced consistently across all the people involved in an inmate’s stay,” he explained. “That you can accomplish in a prison that is fully dedicated to delivering this service because everyone is in treatment.”

According to the 2006 report released by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, those who successfully completed the nine-month program at Sheridan had a lower recidivism rate and had better chances of finding employment than those who had not completed the program.

Clearly the issue is not that Illinois lacks innovative, effective treatment and diversion programs.

“There are just too many people in system,” Williams said. “And it’s under funded. The treatment system has not been brought to scale.”

Others see the situation in starker terms.

“There are so many good programs, but at the same time the penalties are getting stiffer,” Kane-Willis of Roosevelt University said. “You can’t have both things going on. The stiffer penalties will trump diversion program unless you’re diverting everyone through them, which isn’t happening.”

The 61-day paradox                                                                               

Vincent Hill, a 44-year-old former cocaine and heroin addict, spent time in prison on three different occasions for drug-related robberies. Even with that record, he was sentenced in 1999 to one year in prison after being convicted of a Class 4 felony cocaine possession. But in Illinois, a year-long sentence usually results in exactly 61 days served in prison.

According to IDOC spokesman Schnapp, 61 days is the amount of time IDOC settled on to “process the inmate,” since the day-for-day good time credit and six months supplemental meritorious credit would result in no time served otherwise.

But in Hill’s case, the shorter sentence meant he wasn’t eligible for drug treatment in prison.

“It takes at least two months to get into a program,” said Hill, who now lives on the Southwest side with his wife and four children.

Hill has been clean, he said, since 2002. But during that 61-day stint in prison, and the other longer stays that preceded it, he was still using regularly. Cocaine and heroin were, after all, widely available, often smuggled in with visitors or guards.

“I tried not to use as much,” he said. “But I was afraid of getting sick—the withdrawal.”

And after his time in jail, he returned to his old neighborhood, where everyone around him was still using. To feed his drug habit, Hill would plug pay phones with tissue and collect the quarters at the end of the day.

The fact that Hill’s sentence was too short to qualify for treatment is not unusual, Olson explained.

“So many drug offenders spend so little time in prison,” he said. “Very few low levels would be able to stay in a program long enough to get the dose that’s been proven to be effective, generally three to six months. With Sheridan, they really need a minimum of 9 months. It’s interesting—the fact that drug laws result in non-punitive sentences actually works against the willingness and ability to receive treatment.”

Impact on Communities

“I never did anything in front of my kids,” said Hill, who until 2004 didn’t live with his children or the woman who is now his wife. “They know I’m daddy, and I saw them regularly. But my wife used to push me away because she knew I was getting high. Our relationship wasn’t good.”

He eventually received treatment in a community facility after another burglary arrest in 2002, when he said a judge decided to give him “a chance.”

“I prayed to God, ‘Please let me do this,’” he recalled. “My kids were getting bigger, and I wanted to show them the right way.”

George Huff, 52, a former addict who now volunteers for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said he was surrounded by drugs and alcohol at a very young age.

“I started drinking when I was six years old,” he said. “I was born into the lifestyle.”

Eventually, he became addicted to a variety of substances, including cocaine, and in 1998, he spent 15 months in prison for violating probation on a felony theft. He was able to get treatment in prison and now lives in Mercy House, a transitional living facility near the Loop.

His eight children, he said, have of course been affected by his addiction.

“My only relationship was with drugs,” he said. “I had no sense of responsibility. I didn’t care about life. Now, I want to be a real functioning human being in society, to help somebody.”

Similar sentiments were expressed at the RAP program graduation on May 22. The families and friends of graduates — as well as Judge Fox, three prosecutors, a public defender and several probation officers — gathered at the criminal courthouse at 26th & California to celebrate the achievements of the 18 men and women who completed the program.

“I’m taking control now and being honest with myself,” said Kevin Johnson, 49-year-old engineer who used to spend up to $2000 per week to support his cocaine habit. “When I was using, I was no father to my daughter, or a husband to my wife. I was hurting others.”

His wife, Dottie, said being married to a drug addict was a life she “wouldn’t wish on anyone.”

“I couldn’t trust the person I loved,” she continued. “I was living on edge all the time. But now we’ve started our marriage all over again.”

But despite the success stories, even Judge Fox realizes that the impact of the program is limited.

“We’re saving lives one at a time,” he said. “Is it a solution to the problem? No, but it’s a start. We need to take drug courts to scale. There should be drug court programs in every county in every state.”

But even if that should happen, experts say it is important to acknowledge that there isn’t one solution to what is a an incredibly complicated and nuanced problem.

“Anybody who thinks that this is a simple issue is extremely naïve, and people who say it’s simply a matter of giving people treatment don’t understand the complexity of it,” said Loyola University’s Olson.

“What if they don’t want treatment?” he continued. “Everybody doesn’t want treatment. What if we threaten them with prison? Well, not everyone is deterred by prison, and some would prefer prison over treatment. If you give someone effective drug treatment, that doesn’t necessarily alleviate all of their issues.”

June 2008

Rachel Irwin/Medill

Slideshow of facts depicting how Illinois addresses the issue of incarcerating drug offenders.


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