County to divert low-level drug offenders to treatment programs

A new Cook County policy will affect the marijuana enforcement in Evanston. Currently, the city charges offenders found in possession of 10 grams or more of marijuana, but under the new policy the county will not pursue charges for possession under 30 grams and will refer others to treatment programs instead of jail.

Daily file photo illustration by Susan Du

A new Cook County policy will affect the marijuana enforcement in Evanston. Currently, the city charges offenders found in possession of 10 grams or more of marijuana, but under the new policy the county will not pursue charges for possession under 30 grams and will refer others to treatment programs instead of jail.

Paige Leskin, Managing Editor

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Cook County will withhold prosecuting many low-level drug offenses, and instead will refer offenders to treatment programs, the state’s attorney announced Monday.

The policy changes aim to keep nonviolent offenders out of the criminal justice system so officials can more effectively deal with the “drug epidemic” and focus resources on more serious crimes, state’s attorney Anita Alvarez said at a press conference.

“With the implementation of this new policy, I firmly believe that we are in the position to create a sea of change in Cook County’s approach to dealing with low-level drug crimes and nonviolent repeat drug offenders,” Alvarez said. “While our financial resources are shrinking in Cook County, violent crime is not.”

Under the new policy, the county will drop most misdemeanor charges of marijuana possession under 30 grams. Those with three or more citations for possession will have the option to go through a drug treatment program instead of going to jail.

The new policy will directly affect those cited for marijuana possession in Evanston. Under current city code, people with fewer than 10 grams of marijuana are issued a citation and a fine at the city level.

However, cases involving people with more than 10 grams of marijuana in their possession are referred to the Cook County court which, under the new policy, would drop the charges if the person had less than 30 grams.

City attorney Grant Farrar said the city will continue to refer people who are charged with possession of more than 10 grams to Cook County courts. It will be left entirely up to county prosecutors to go forward with charges or, as the new policy calls for, drop the case, Farrar said.

The county’s move toward lessening penalties for low-level drug offenses comes a few years after Evanston implemented its own new marijuana policy, which was passed by City Council in November 2011. The city’s ordinance gave less severe punishments to people found with small amounts of marijuana.

In the year after the ordinance was implemented, police arrested a smaller amount of people for possession, in exchange for an increase in tickets issued. While 147 were arrested in 2011, only 108 people were arrested in the next year.

However, the county’s initiative covers a broader range of charges. In addition to misdemeanor crimes, prosecutors will offer alternative treatment programs to replace jail sentences for some felony charges for having a small amount of a controlled substance.

The new policy is a “step in the right direction,” said Kathy Lyons, executive director of Evanston’s James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy. The center has long worked with the city to offer services for offenders, including referrals to local substance treatment programs.

“We think that treatment is absolutely the right approach to people who have issues with drugs,” Lyons said. “It’s a much more productive, much more restorative type of response.”

Lyons said the new policies would particularly benefit juveniles, as the lesser penalties could keep them from entering the criminal justice system at a young age.

The reforms include a treatment program that specifically targets juveniles. The program would be “community-based,” providing offenders under the age of 18 with localized support and counseling, the state’s attorney office said.

Once someone enters the criminal justice system, Lyons said, it is hard to get out. People who are convicted also often have a harder time getting an education, employment and housing, she said.

“Even just a minimal involvement in the court system presents such significant barriers to being a successful adult,” she said.

But Evanston police have yet to receive direction from Cook County officials on how to go about implementing the new countywide policies, Evanston police Cmdr. Joseph Dugan said. Once they do, however, officers will still have to determine on a case-by-case basis if the incident falls under the new policies and what the resulting punishment would be, Dugan said.

“We have not yet received any direction from the state’s attorney’s office with a plan on how to follow through with this,” Dugan said. “But I’m all for getting people … assistance, concentrating on violent crimes.”

Email: pl@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @paigeleskin

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