Dec 6, 2021 - News

Low-level drug arrests ruining lives

A photo of an expressway.
The Eisenhower Expressway, also known as "the heroin highway." Photo: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

A new BGA/Sun-Times investigation looks into life-changing incarcerations of thousands for low-level drug offenses prosecutors know won't stick.

Why it matters: Under state law, drug possession cases under 15 grams — a trace of heroin or one Xanax pill — are a felony.

  • The offenders can languish behind bars for months, losing work, housing and freedom and altering their lives.

Startling takeaways:

  • Of the 10,480 drug possession cases from 2018, 72% were ultimately tossed out.
  • More than $100 million was spent on jailing people on low-level drug possession charges from 2013-2018.
  • The 11th police district, which represents the West Side of Chicago and its open-air drug markets off the Eisenhower Expressway called "the heroin highway," has twice as many drug arrests as any other district in the city.
  • A former gang member said that a West Side heroin operation could bring in $10,000 a day.

Be smart: Some in Illinois are trying to change the felony charge to a misdemeanor as it is in more than 20 states, including Oregon. A measure to do this stalled in the Illinois state senate after passing the state house this spring.

  • Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx called this "a colossal waste of time," per the BGA/Sun-Times investigation.

Between the lines: One reason the city is still classifying these charges as felonies is that low-level drug possession arrests often are based on the word of the officer and don't usually require a confession or witness testimony.

  • In the report, defense attorneys cite the power officers have to stop and search possible suspects.

Go deeper: The BGA and Injustice Watch teamed up to create The Circuit, which crunched years worth of data for this report.

  • "The consequences of these dead-end arrests can be devastating for the individuals themselves, but also their families and the entire community," BGA investigative reporter John Chase tells Axios. "Sadly, after 20 years and tens of thousands of arrests, it's still business as usual in the West Side drug markets.
  • "Drug sales and purchases continue, and people keep dying."
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