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Experts say a New Direction Needed for Illinois Drug Policy

June 12, 2009

Chicago – With growing disparities in drug sentences according to race, some experts say Illinois needs a new direction in drug policy. A conference in Chicago today will examine ways to make it happen. Despite the fact that the rates of illicit drug use vary little by ethnicity, many studies show that criminal justice consequences for drugs fall overwhelmingly on minorities.

The executive director of Protestants for the Common Good, the Reverend Alexander Sharp, says it doesn’t make sense.

"Something's happening in the way our laws are enforced that leads to a prison population that is disproportionately African American and Hispanic, and that is simply wrong."

The United States leads the world in the percentage of residents it holds in prison. Sharp says it’s time for the country to move away from being a "prison nation" and look for alternatives to incarceration.

"Safety for society is absolutely essential, but the folks we are putting in are not a threat in the way that one might visualize. It certainly means that, when they come out of prison, they're most likely to be recycled. We have huge social costs with little social gain, and that’s outrageous."

More than half of all those released in any given year return to prison in three years, according to Sharp. He praises state policymakers for the recent creation of the Illinois Crime Reduction Act of 2009, which offers measures to reduce the recycling of individuals in and out of prison.

Experts at today’s conference will assess current sentencing laws and examine successful programs that provide opportunities for drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration. Today’s program will be held at Roosevelt University.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - IL