The True Cost of Drug Arrests

Determining appropriate punishment for a crime can sometimes be tricky. But what happens when that decision is put off? Our friend and Public Defender Mike Halpert has been noticing one troubling reality.

Halpert has been working in Bond court since last spring; in that time, he has paid close attention to the to who returns to prison and who goes home. He has noticed a clear pattern in the numbers -- roughly half of the cases he's seen have been related to possession of small amounts of hard drugs (small enough that it would be considered a misdemeanor elsewhere) -- and most of those cases are dismissed. So in the end, these individuals have spent time in jail at the expense of taxpayers without any benefit. They meet their bail, then walk away without any support or therapy, bound to return.

Many stakeholders in the criminal justice system do not know how to handle the volume of low-level, non-violent drug crimes that occur every day. Recently, it seems as though no one wants to deal with this problem at all. The result? They get passed from police, to the prison, to a judge (possibly to jail again and back to a judge), then back out into the community. Judges are left at the end to filter the harmful from the harmless.

On the front end, Police arrest these criminals because they want them off the streets, where the crime could escalate; then, prosecutors don't want to spend their time reviewing cases that do not actually involve someone who poses a threat to public safety. More times than not, low-level drug arrests are dismissed after all of their back-and-forth between jail and the courtroom. In the meantime, taxpayers foot the bill. As written in the Chicago Reporter's coverage of the issue, "1 in 3 of these cases are dismissed, which means many users are released from a costly stay in jail without treatment, only to come back weeks or months later" (Caputo).

Judges -- left with the brunt of the decision-making -- have started turning more frequently towards other options than bond in hopes of keeping arrests from recurring. The Illinois Supreme Court recently reported that electronic monitors have been issued at more than double the rate this year compared to last year, and many judges are opting for house arrest as a sentence for those without criminal histories.

While these options may be band-aids to rising jail costs and arrest numbers, ultimately, they won't solve the issue. The Reporter article suggests that while "the people with the power to make [necessary] changes – judges, prosecutors, police and county officials – have been bickering over who's responsible….there are signs that they're beginning to work more cooperatively" (Caputo). New systems are being considered, and hopefully, we will soon begin to move in a directing of healing rather than bandaging.

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