Illinois Drug Policy Changes May Reduce Jail Population


The Illinois General Assembly took several positive actions towards reforming the Cook County Criminal Justice System this spring session. Both chambers passed legislation that could continue to decrease the population of the Cook County Jail by reducing the time between an arrest and preliminary hearing, expanding the Drug Court Program, and diverting low-level drug offenders out of the criminal justice system.

These legislative victories build on our efforts to significantly decrease the Cook County Jail population, close down a unit, and divert the savings into community-based substance abuse programs, mental health treatment, and restorative justice peace hubs.

HB 356: Field Testing Bill Should Reduce Time to Preliminary Hearings

In the 2014 spring legislative session, the Reclaim Campaign and Senator Harmon (D-Oak Park) proposed legislation to reduce the time someone could be held after an arrest pending a preliminary hearing from 30 to 10 days. This change would have brought Illinois in line with the standard 10-14 days of most other states across the country. Unfortunately, this legislation did not proceed because of strong opposition from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office.

In 2010, over 12,000 people waited an average of 25 days in Cook County Jail before being released when charges against them were dropped at or after a preliminary hearing. Detaining these people cost over $40 million. Over 5,000 of these cases were for drug charges.

Drug cases, by far, have the longest wait for a preliminary hearing. This is largely because the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office waits for drug testing results from the Illinois State Police Crime Lab before making a probable cause determination when someone is arrested on drug charges. The backlog at the Crime Lab means that it takes 3-4 weeks to get results on drug tests. Once results are received, many cases get thrown out at the preliminary hearing after an individual has been held for an average of 25 days.

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office proposed, HB 2897 SA3, which would create a pilot program to do field testing of controlled substances at local police stations, using these tests to make a probable cause determination. Field testing already exists in counties outside of Cook and in jurisdictions across the country where the wait time between arrest and preliminary hearings is significantly shorter. Community Renewal Society agreed to support this pilot program as a first step towards reducing the time someone can be held pending a preliminary hearing. The agreed upon legislation was filed in May 2014 and passed out of the Senate with a unanimous vote. Unfortunately, HB 2897 SA 3 was not called for a vote in the House before the legislature adjourned in 2014.

This spring, Representative Zalewski (D-Riverside) and Senator Don Harmon reintroduced the field testing legislation as HB 356. The bill passed both chambers unanimously and is now being sent to the Governor’s desk for his signature. The passage of this bill signifies a delayed, yet very important, victory for the Reclaim Campaign. When the bill becomes law, it will allow us to monitor the efficacy of the field testing pilot program. If the pilot proves to have an impact on shortening the amount of time people arrested on drug cases wait to have a preliminary hearing, we will be able return to the General Assembly to change the law and bring Illinois in line with other states’ statutes for holding people pending a preliminary hearing.

HB 1 HA 2: Positive Reforms to Drug Court Program

HB 1 House Amendment 2 proposed by Representative Lou Lang (D-Skokie) is another important step towards reform of the Cook County Justice System. The bill emerged out of the “Young Adult Heroin Use Task Force” created by the Illinois General Assembly in 2013. While the bill’s primary purpose is to address heroin addiction, there are a couple of important changes made to the Drug Court Treatment Act that will have an impact in increasing treatment referrals and keeping people with substance abuse issues out of jail.

These changes happened because of the advocacy of Community Renewal Society and Appleseed Fund for Justice. Our work led to key changes in House Amendment 2 - the final version of the bill - which passed both chambers. The changes include:

  • Removing the requirement that those charged under the Cannabis Control Act and Controlled Substances Act be offered probation by the drug court, instead making it discretionary. This ensures that the drug court does not extend to people who are at too low a level of need and risk, and would be bad candidates for the program.

  • Removing the prohibition of people with too 'severe' a substance abuse problem from entering drug court program. This is an improvement because drug courts are designed exactly for individuals with severe substance abuse problems, particularly high-need levels (meaning drug dependence). The original bill attempted to exclude these individuals from access to the drug court program.

  • Reducing the State's Attorney's gatekeeping authority over the drug court population by allowing an individual to be referred up to 3 times (instead of 1) before the State’s Attorney may object. The bill also limits the kinds of offenses for which the State’s Attorney can reject someone from entering a drug court program. These are positive steps that ensure that Judges and not prosecutors will have more discretion in referring qualified individuals for a drug court program.

HB 218: Standardized Statewide Ticketing for Low-Level Cannabis Possession

At the 2015 winter leadership council meeting CRS leadership voted to support decriminalization of marijuana because of the disproportionate impact cannabis related arrests have on communities of color. These unnecessary arrests lead to many spending a significant amount of time in the Cook County Jail and county resources being wasted on people who are not a threat to public safety. The Illinois General Assembly took steps towards ending these disproportionate and unnecessary arrests by passing HB 218 out of both chambers this session.

HB 218, sponsored by Representative Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago), changes state law so that possession of marijuana under 15 grams would now result in a ticket statewide. The new law also eliminates the option officers had previously to arrest. This is an important change that will have an impact in eliminating the disparity between those arrested and ticketed for low-level cannabis possession.

The bill is on its way to Governor Rauner’s desk, but it is unclear on whether or not he will sign it.