By Ben Ruddell, Director of Criminal Justice Policy
The War on Drugs has failed and everyone knows it. 79% of Illinois voters support reclassifying sentences for all drug offenses. In 2016 a bipartisan Commission appointed by the Governor recommended that sentences for drug crimes be reduced across the board. Yet Illinois continues to treat simple possession of drugs as a felony, with real life consequences.
In Chicago we continue to see a pointless, wasteful and destructive cycle of “dead-end” drug arrests of mostly Black people. Meanwhile, in predominantly white rural parts of Illinois, imprisonment for methamphetamine possession is on the rise.
After years of increasing overdose deaths, there is broad agreement that Illinois must take a public health approach to drug use. While we have a long way to go, Illinois has begun to prioritize evidence-based treatment and embrace the concept of harm reduction. Yet we have been slow to shift our priorities away from ineffective and costly overuse of punishment and incarceration as a response to illicit drug use.
The passage in January 2021 of a historic package of policing and criminal justice reforms in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor has been met by a fierce backlash by law enforcement and conservative politicians. Some elected officials and candidates have even resorted to peddling myths about fentanyl in a cynical attempt to frighten voters, exploiting the grief of overdose victims, and demanding that we double down on harmful and ineffective “War on Drugs” policies that have failed us for decades.
Illinois should join the many other states that have successfully reclassified penalties for drug possession and shift our resources to the things that work to reduce overdose death and help people struggling with substance use disorders. For several years, the ACLU and our partners have worked to advance HB 3447, state legislation that would reclassify sentences for small-scale drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, create new pathways for people to connect with community-based treatment in their communities, and enable people currently living with felony records an opportunity to clear their records.
In 2021, the Illinois House passed HB 3447, but the bill has yet to be considered by the Senate. There is still time for the Senate to take action to send this bill to Gov. Pritzker for signature. Learn more about HB 3447 here.
ACLU-IL and our partners recently published a report summarizing our research and recommending that Illinois should reduce the sentence for possessing personal use amounts of drugs. You can read the report here, and learn more at drugpolicyreformillinois.org.