The news: An April study by the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project found that the number of African Americans incarcerated for drug offenses dropped 21.6 percent nationwide from 1999 to 2005, while the number of white drug offenders increased by 42.6 percent during the same period.

Behind the news: Illinois has been behind the curve in reducing racial disparities among incarcerated drug offenders. A 2008 report from the New Yorkbased Human Rights Watch found that black drug offenders in Illinois were incarcerated at nearly 24 times the rate of their white counterparts in 2003. Only Wisconsin had a higher ratio. Pamela Rodriguez, executive vice president of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, cited several possible explanations for Illinois’ departure from the national trend, including an explosion in methamphetamine abuse in other states–” most common among white people in rural areas.

Rodriguez also suggested that other states may have recently implemented alternativeto- prison programs, while such programs have been in place for years in Illinois. Whatever the reason, Rodriguez said people should be concerned about the lasting effects this could have on African Americans. “There is a long-term, generational impact on African- American communities, particularly in the city,” she said.

“We are creating generations of disruption. Criminal histories combined with addiction make it harder to go to college and get a job. Entire communities are impacted, not just individuals and families.”

Treatment Alternative for Safe Communities is now working with the Disproportionate Justice Impact Commission, which was established last year to determine whether Illinois drug laws have a disproportionate impact on minorities.
The commission will deliver a report to the state Legislature recommending necessary policy changes at the end of this year.