Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez announced "a first-of-its-kind drug policy in Cook County that will seek to keep nonviolent low level repeat drug offenders out of the criminal justice system and steer more individuals to treatment rather than traditional prosecution at the front end of the system."
Under the plan, the State Attorney's Office will not prosecute majority of the cases involving misdemeanor cannabis possession and will send those with Class 4 felony marijuana possession and other Class 4 felony drug possession offenders to "alternative programs," including a new drug deferred prosecuting program.
"The methods in which we are handling low level drug cases here in Cook County are simply not working. Under our current policies and practices, we continue to see the same individuals revolving in and out of our criminal justice system with no meaningful impact or outcome and at a significant cost to taxpayers," Alvarez said. "While our financial resources are shrinking in Cook County, violent crime is not. These policy changes will enable us to reallocate our resources away from offenders who are non-violent and have a drug addiction toward fighting violent crime such as drug trafficking, illegal guns and gangs."
But some activists say more needs to done to address the issue of marijuana penalities, particularly their impact on certain communities.
"The decision by Cook County State's Attorney Alvarez to loosen marijuana penalties is positive step toward reducing racial and economic disparities in Cook County's criminal justice system. The overwhelming majority of individuals arrested, charged and incarcerated for misdemeanor marijuana possession are poor, black and Latino", said Byron Hobbs, executive director for Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL). "Our organization along with a larger coalition of community and faith groups including the Reclaim Campaign, have been organizing for over a year calling on Anita Alvarez to use the prosecutorial powers of her office to reform a broken and structurally racist criminal justice system in Cook County so this announcement is good but much more needs to be done."
"States Attorney Alvarez should apply this decision to anyone who is currently incarcerated for misdemeanor marijuana possession and call for their immediate release," added Ruby Pinto, a leader with SOUL and the #DecarcerateChi campaign. Racial and economic justice are inseparable from this discussion and it is the responsibility of our elected officials to be honest about that. Anita Alvarez needs to acknowledge that structural racism and classism are at the root of this flawed system and should serve as the basis for any reform efforts."
The State's Attorney's Office will also lead an effort to create a drug diversion program for youth that will send those with low level drug offenses to community-based programs aimed at leading young people away from drugs.
The change in drug policies stems from an "in-depth analysis" by the office over the last year that looked at the "screening and prosecution of drug cases as well as cost effectiveness and system outcomes."