ACLU finds racial disparities in Illinois pot arrests

June 5, 2013

By Patrick Smith

(Getty/File)

Leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois say one way to address racial disparities in marijuana arrests is to stop making them.

A new report from the civil rights group calls for the legalization of marijuana. The study found that African Americans in Illinois are almost eight times more likely than whites to be arrested for pot possession.

Ed Yohnka, director of public policy for the ACLU of Illinois, says whites and blacks use pot at about the same rate, but enforcement focuses on African Americans.

“We see this in the city of Chicago, we see it in other areas, that … where the enforcement is targeted is at people of color. And it results in this grossly disparate rate of arrest,” Yohnka said.

In an emailed statement, a spokesman for the Chicago police Department said police officers enforce laws in the interest of public safety and without regard to race.

According to the ACLU report, Illinois has the fourth highest rate of race disparity in marijuana arrests in the country.

Yohnka says that disparity “results in really tragic outcomes in … people’s lives,” because of court costs and the stigma of a criminal record.  It cost the state about $221 million to enforce marijuana laws in 2010, according to the report.

“This war on marijuana … is an abject failure,” Yohnka said.

In its report the ACLU recommends that pot be legal for anyone over 21, and be licensed, taxed and regulated like any other product. The group also suggests that tax revenue from marijuana sales could be earmarked for substance-abuse prevention, among other things.Yohnka says the public wants marijuana to be legalized and that elected officials are lagging behind popular opinion.

Despite that, marijuana arrests are trending up, not down, in Illinois and throughout the country.

Illinois had 12,406 more pot arrests in 2010 than it did in 2001, according to the report.

The results of the study didn't come as a big shock to Juliana Stratton, but she says she was surprised to see that Cook County had the most marijuana possession arrests in the country.

Stratton, who heads the Cook County Judicial Advisory Council, says the report confirms the importance of the work being done by Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle to try and cut down on the number of marijuana arrests in the county.

She says more money and energy should be diverted away from law enforcement and toward treatment and prevention. In the coming months, she says the county will be unveiling programs that will divert minor drug offenders away from jail and toward rehabilitation.

As for Cook County's high number of pot arrests, Stratton says part of the reason could be the Chicago Police Department's focus on quality-of-life policing and the drying up of state funds for drug treatment.

Stratton says CPD's policy of arresting minor offenders as part of the "broken windows theory" of policing, runs counter to the county president's aim of decreasing the population of the Cook County Jail.

Illinois state Sen. Mattie Hunter, who heads the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission, also said  she was not surprised by the ACLU’s findings. She says the report echoes what she and her colleagues have found in years studying racial inequality throughout the state.

But Hunter says the problem won’t go away until racism is eradicated from the justice system.

Hunter does not support the legalization of marijuana.

Cook County led the nation in marijuana possession arrests in 2010 with 33,000, or 91 per day, according to the ACLU report.