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New study shows racial disparity in Chicago pot arrests despite 2012 law

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Despite the praise that was heaped on the City of Chicago when it decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2012, the latest statistics released Monday by the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University revealed that both the city and the state of Illinois continue to have high numbers of arrest records.

Working form data sets from 2012 to early 2014, the research team examined arrest records, police data, plus laws and ordinances of all of the state’s 102 municipalities.

With 63 percent of Illinois voters supporting a decriminalization bill the time is ripe for a significant legislative change in marijuana laws. Yet, it ranked fifth among other states in the number of arrests for possession, despite the two-year old legislation.

And, “Illinois tied with Texas for 1st place for the proportion of marijuana possession arrests (97.8%) compared to all marijuana arrests and including sales, manufacturing, and delivery arrests,” according to Kathleen Kane Willis, lead author of the study, and director of the Consortium.

Perhaps most alarming, is that the state’s “Marijuana possession arrest rate is more than 150% higher than the national average, Kane-Willis and her researchers discovered.

With an assembled panel of academics, journalists, and clergy members, among them Rev. Al Sharp of The Community Renewal Society, and Chicago Reader columnist Mick Dumke, and Beth Johnson of the Cabrini-Green Legal Clinic present to provide texture to the report, the responses varied but most agreed, as Dumke and Kane-Willis said, that the higher numbers reflect, in part, a “policing tool” to help harness crime in high crime areas.

Most of those areas are populated by high populations of African Americans, and whose arrest, limits, or in some cases, destroys their chances in education, housing and employment, as Sharp emphasized.

Kane- Willis commented twice that “we really live in two cities,” meaning that due to racial segregation that there are two different realties that affect when, and how often, arrests are made, and where.

Her study showed that “Neighborhoods with a large African American population were found to be predictive of high arrest rates for marijuana misdemeanor arrests.”

Jack Fritchey, Cook County Commissioner of the 12th District, another panelist, also noted, to much amusement, “try to imagine if the policing effort were carried out as frequently to young white men in posh Lincoln Park., what the consequences would be. “

His comment underscores the intersection of race with justice because “Illinois ranked third in the nation for the black to white racial disparity of marijuana possession offenders, despite the fact that marijuana use is the same in both groups,” the study noted along with the discrepancy in arrest rates when it found that, “In Illinois, African Americans were about 7.6 times more likely to be arrested than whites.”

In fact, “Illinois’s rate of black to white disparity was more than 200% higher than the national average (7.56 v. 3.73) or more than twice as high as the national average.”

Much of the recent discussion has focused on whether, or not, decriminalization is the answer, and whether or not ticketing is the sole answer. Yet Kane-Willis says, “While I do support a decriminalization bill, I fear that we will not be able to address the issue of disparate impact on communities of color. One of our findings was that ticketing does not reduce disparate impact. I worry that a ticketing law might result in whites receiving no sanction and people of color receiving tickets. I also worry about the case of net widening, which happened in Evanston.”

The high arrest records of Chicago, compared with neighboring suburban Evanston have the result of “bringing down” the state numbers. For example, the study also found that “Evanston’s arrests for marijuana misdemeanors decreased the most, dropping by nearly 50 percent from 2010 to 2012.”

There is also a monetary component with the high cost of the arrest process which Dumke reiterated from his earlier research, when he noted that, according to Chicago Police Department Records for 2013, there “at least $23 million and 46,000 police hours, the equivalent of officers using 5,750 entire shifts to process low-level pot arrests.”

He also noted that the process itself is long and cumbersome, in addition to the high price tag.

Addressing the disparity, Kane-Willis notes that, “The only way in which I can truly figure out a way to say police time and money and to reduce geographic and disproportionate impact on communities of colors is to seriously consider a system of taxation and regulation. The Colorado experience so far has demonstrated good success in lowering property crime as well as violent crime.”

She also, in consideration of budgetary shortfalls, that “Since Illinois is in such dire financial straights, I think it is important to put all options on the table and take them seriously. All options have to include taxation and regulation. We cannot have a two-tiered system any longer, it is unjust, unwise and costing Illinois lot of money - and costing many people their chances at employment, housing and education.”

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