If there is one thing I have believed about being a United States citizen and living in this country, it is the basic premise that all of us are innocent until proven guilty.
Police and judges are human and make mistakes, but they are not the norm. They are not what we believe in. Indeed, that is why they are considered mistakes.
What is happening in Cook County right now is not a mistake. It is a systematic perversion of justice. The county is arresting large numbers of people on drug offenses, putting many of them in jail without the evidence to convict them. This leaves many with an arrest record that will cripple them for the rest of their lives.
In Cook County last year, “60 percent of Class 4 felony [drug] possession charges were dropped or dismissed prior to trial,” according to the recently released final report of the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission.
More than half of all those arrested are, in effect, accused of something for which evidence does not exist or is not presented.
The report continues, “This gap in processing of the facts of each case was magnified by an average of three weeks following arrest that defendants awaited preliminary hearing, many of whom were detained in jail. The short-term and long-term disruptive effects of the arrest and potential detention on the lives of the defendants cannot be overstated.”
For this bureaucratic language, substitute “lives maimed.”
Co-chaired by State Sen. Mattie Hunter and State Rep. Arthur L. Turner, the commission was created to “study the nature and extent of the harm caused to minority communities through the practical application of state drug laws and . . . to address the disproportionate impact [of such] laws.”
The report documents that the U.S. has become a “prisoner nation,” incarcerating a higher proportion of its population than any other country.
Much of the surge has been due to drug arrests, many for low-level possession. The impact falls disproportionately on African Americans, even though drug use is virtually the same for all racial groups.
The system does not need to make things worse.
The State’s Attorney’s office could review felony cases for drug charges before allowing them to go to court.
This would provide a disincentive for police to pick up people on the street without clear probable cause.
Though this is one of the recommendations of the commission, those who might sponsor legislation deem it too difficult to get through the Illinois General Assembly.
The bill that will be advanced this year, HB 298, would broaden the discretion of courts to permit the sealing of the arrest record when charges are dropped or convictions not obtained.
This is not enough. Records should be sealed automatically for those with or without prior convictions.
As the bill is now written, individuals would still have to hire a lawyer and go to court to get an arrest removed from their record. How many will know how, and why, this must be done and be able to afford it?
But HB 298 is a step forward, and we commend Rep. Constance Howard for her leadership in sponsoring it.
“Innocent until proven guilty” is a bedrock principle of justice in this country. We must make sure it is being upheld in Cook County.
Rev. Alexander E. Sharp is executive director of Protestants for the Common Good, an Illinois faith-based education and advocacy organization.