Public officials have tried various tactics to slow heroin sales along a stretch of Interstate 290, known as the “heroin highway,” because it’s easy to score drugs in the neighborhoods that border it. Photo by Lucio Villa.

In August, state Rep. Dennis Reboletti, a Republican from west suburban Elmhurst, issued a stern warning: “We are putting [drug] dealers of even small quantities on notice: You will go to prison.”

Reboletti, a former narcotics prosecutor, had been pushing his colleagues in the Illinois General Assembly to help him to slow the “heroin highway.” It’s a nickname that public officials gave to Interstate 290 because it’s a straight shot from leafy west suburban communities to a stretch of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. A growing number of suburban teenagers have learned that it’s easy to score drugs there.

A decade ago, Chicago police estimated that 60 percent of all of the city’s heroin deals were done in neighborhoods along that expressway.

That prompted public officials to try different tactics for slowing the heroin traffic. In 2002, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s chief narcotics officer, William O’Brien, vowed to impound the cars of out-of-towners caught buying drugs on the West Side. “We’re trying to attack the buyers,” O’Brien told the Chicago Sun-Times. Later that year, state lawmakers made prison time mandatory for anyone convicted of selling more than 5 grams of heroin. The threshold was lowered again in August by a law that Reboletti sponsored. Now anyone convicted of selling 3 grams of heroin must do mandatory time behind bars.

These enhanced laws are aimed at stemming the flow of drugs, but they have come at an enormous cost, The Chicago Reporter found.

Under 13 enhanced drug laws enacted from 2000 through 2011, 5,761 sentences have been handed out in Cook County alone. That led the state to pick up an estimated $220 million in incarceration costs, the Reporter analysis of the Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court records shows. The per-inmate costs were calculated based on the Reporter’s analysis of Illinois Department of Corrections’ records showing the average time drug offenders serve out of their sentences.

The mandatory sentences also have played a part in pushing Illinois’ prison population to an all-time high of 49,494 in November 2012. “We don’t have the same revolving door,” said Walter Boyd, executive director of the nonprofit St. Leonard’s Ministries, which provides services to ex-offenders. “But there are longer sentences, and [inmates] are stacking up.”

Lawmakers have done little to confront the costs before adopting the laws, the Reporter found. Only three of the 13 drug-related laws enacted in the state Legislature since 2000 came with a financial analysis.

Lawmakers need to start confronting the costs of stricter drug laws before passing them, said Kathleen Kane-Willis, the director of Roosevelt University’s Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy. “It’s sort of like the pension obligation,” she said. “You can vote for it and not fund it but, eventually, you’ll have a crisis.”

If there were a financial analysis attached to the bills before, she added, “it might put the brakes on these sorts of laws.”

The Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, created by the state Legislature in 2009 to help lawmakers figure out how to bring down Illinois’ prison population and costs, dropped the ball, said Pam Rodriguez, president of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, one of the state’s largest drug diversion and treatment programs. The sentencing council failed to study the cost of the latest drug enhancement introduced by Reboletti. “I raised the question, in several venues, why [the council] didn’t analyze this bill, which is clearly in their mandate,” Rodriguez said. “I didn’t get a real answer on that question.”

Kathryn Saltmarsh, the sentencing council’s executive director, said the answer relates to how the measure moved through the Legislature. It was stuffed into a shell bill and adopted by law makers within a matter of six days. “Part of the reality of the political process,” Saltmarsh said, “is that there are some bills that will never be amenable to [analysis] because they are fast-tracked.”

The rub, Rodriguez said, is that many of the harsher laws that drove up incarceration numbers have been approved in recent years, and those changes came at the same time drug treatment and other diversion programs—which she sees as more cost effective—faced cutbacks in the 2000s.

“If we really want to address the impact on public safety, we have to realize that we can’t punish our way out of a public health problem,” she said. “Escalating penalties to an already disadvantaged population has the opposite effect.”

Reboletti, who is also a member of the sentencing council, said that it’s unfortunate that more money is not invested in substance abuse or mental health programs.

“I would love, in a perfect world, to be able to put money in before people end up in the prison system,” Reboletti added. “At the end of the day, you fight crime the best you can.”

But John Maki, executive director of the prison reform group, the John Howard Association of Illinois, said the jury is still out on whether sending nonviolent offenders to prison is the most effective way to reduce crime. He believes mental health services and creating decent jobs and housing could be more effective in driving down corrections costs.

“Prison is a quick fix. It’s a simple reaction—lock ’em up, and people feel better,” he said. “We need to think about crime control in a way that’s not just law enforcement.”

*           *           *

Eric Ware grew up along a stretch that puts the “heroin” in the “heroin highway.” Ware is a 38-year-old with a sheepish smile. He wears a closely cropped goatee and speaks with a slight slur. The fine lines around his eyes hint at the hard life he has made for himself.

Ware said he began smoking Phencyclidine, better known as PCP, fairly regularly at 12. At 16, after “messing” with the hallucinogenic drug, he went on a bender and robbed a series of fast-food restaurants not far from the house he grew up in on the West Side’s Austin neighborhood. “I got a gun to rob three Kentucky’s and a Churchill’s,” he said, referring to the fried-chicken chains.

Ware was convicted in 1991 on four counts of armed robbery and gun possession. He spent his entire adolescence behind bars and was released on his 21st birthday.

It wasn’t long before he went back to using, and then dealing, drugs. After a while, it was less about putting money in his pocket and more about keeping himself high. “I was selling drugs, robbing, doing basically everything to get it,” he said.

That went on for nearly 20 years and, by his count, landed him in Cook County Jail at least 50 times. Ware was convicted in a handful of the cases—the armed robbery, and a string of drug dealing, possession and theft cases. Between 1991 and 2009, he did three stints in the state penitentiary.

His last drug dealing conviction began in a vacant Humboldt Park lot, near Cicero Avenue and Huron Street, in 2007. He got there in the morning and started getting high and selling heroin. “I was so high,” he said, “I ended up serving an undercover police [officer] twice.”

Sometime in the late afternoon, police moved in to make the arrest. “I was going to the restroom, and they ran up on me,” Ware said. “I’m glad I didn’t have a gun because when they ran on me, they had on ski masks, and I didn’t know they were the police.” They cuffed him and charged him with selling 3 grams of heroin. Within months, he was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison.

“It was a sweet case,” Ware recalls. “I kissed them off because I got three years on two deliveries.”

That’s exactly the kind of attitude that Reboletti was trying to head off when he introduced a bill that lowered the threshold for a mandatory prison sentence for drug dealing convictions involving heroin. “It’s a deterrent,” he said. “People get probation and they’re right back on the street.”

It’s come at a cost. When the heroin threshold was first lowered in 2002, the Illinois Department of Corrections estimated that it would increase the state’s prison population by 76 inmates annually. It was one of the few drug enhancement bills the state put a price tag on: incarceration costs of $18.5 million a year. That estimate turned out to be a low-ball.

Convictions began to spike under the statute in 2004 and, by 2011, low-level heroin dealing rose to the No. 5 most common charge that led to a prison term in Cook County, the Reporter analysis shows. At least 5,739 convictions secured under that single statute led to prison time. If the offenders served 23.4 months—the average length for a Class 1 drug dealing conviction, according to a Reporter analysis of the corrections department records—it would mean the statute cost the state more than $219 million between 2003 and 2011, the analysis shows.

How will the latest change to the law impact state prisons? “We don’t know yet,” Reboletti said. “How many will fall between 5 and 3 grams? I would like to see what those numbers are like a year from now.”

Either way, Ware doesn’t think the laws would have made much of a difference to him.

“The average person, we don’t think about [the consequences]. Then we get caught and we think, ‘I should have did it this way or did it that way,’ but it’s too late now,” he said. “It doesn’t work. Look at all the times I’ve been locked up.”

*           *           *

In 2011, about 20 percent of the inmates in the Illinois Department of Corrections were locked up for a drug offense. A disproportionate share came from Cook County, where nearly half of all prison sentences were handed out for drug dealing or possession.

These offenders are serving longer sentences partly because of these enhancements. An average drug sentence in Cook County was 70 days longer in 2011 than in 2000, the Reporter analysis shows.

Retired Illinois Appellate Court Judge Gino DiVito chairs the 22-member sentencing council, which is composed of lawmakers, corrections officials and judges. The fact that the council exists is proof that state officials know they have a problem, he said.

But DiVito predicted that there will be little action around re-evaluating existing drug laws largely because, politically, it’s a nonstarter in the statehouse. “I’m not sure if that’s doable,” he said. The Legislature “is not inclined to do that.”

The bottom line, Kane-Willis said, is that “you cannot just keep changing the laws without having consequences on the existing system.”

In January, a bill introduced by state Sen. Pamela Althoff, a Republican from McHenry County, died in the Illinois Senate. It would have required that a financial analysis be conducted before any law can be voted on by lawmakers. Less than 2 percent of the 650 laws passed by the state Legislature in 2011 included a fiscal note, according to the Illinois Policy Institute, a fiscal watchdog group.

Other states have adopted similar measures that have had some success in heading off expensive policy changes. South Carolina lawmakers, for example, adopted the Omnibus Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act of 2010, which is projected to save that state roughly $241 million in incarceration costs over five years.

Without that sort of requirement, Rodriguez said, at the least, “There needs to be some sort of trigger mechanism that would send” bills to the sentencing council for a financial analysis before they are passed.

“Would that have changed the outcome? I don’t know,” she said of the new enhanced penalties for dealing heroin. “I think a lot of people are willing to spend a lot of money on incarceration.”

For Reboletti, the cost of doing nothing to deter the drug problem in his district is too great to ignore.

In 2010, hospitals in Chicago and its surrounding suburbs treated more people for heroin overdoses than any other major city in the country, according to a study by Roosevelt University’s Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy.

Dr. Richard Jorgensen, who worked in a west suburban emergency room before being elected DuPage County coroner, said people who are overdosing seem to be getting younger.

“The thing that is so difficult,” Jorgensen added, “is that these are young kids. They are in high school.”

“If you’re going to target a population and you want to get people off the streets, you have to decide if longer prison sentences will do that,” Reboletti said. “There’s always going to be a fiscal cost with anything requiring prison.”

*           *           *

Ware’s guess is that he and those suburban teenagers got into drugs for the same reason.

“I think they just trying to fit in,” he said. “That’s why I started smoking cigarettes, my homies were smoking cigarettes. I wanted to fit in. Why I started smoking [Phencyclidine] ’cause they was doing it.”

He grew up in the heart of the Austin neighborhood at Laramie Avenue and Washington Street in a two-parent household. Both of his parents had jobs. His mom worked in restaurants, and his dad is preparing to retire from a long career as a maintenance supervisor at a veterans’ hospital in Chicago.

“I come from a good family,” he said. “I had everything that the average child could want.”

Ware started high school at Austin Community Academy High School, but dropped out in 1991 when he was incarcerated for the first time.

Nearly half, or 23,259, of the inmates locked up in the Illinois Department of Corrections in 2011 never finished high school. A small fraction never even started, the department’s annual report shows. The bulk of the state’s inmates, nearly 60 percent, are African American. Nine of every 10 are male.

One of Illinois’ biggest missed opportunities in curbing crime is that its corrections department lacks resources to provide training programs, Kane-Willis said. “If you just warehouse people, if you don’t retrain them and give them skills to not re-offend, you’re not going to reduce crime.”

The sentencing commission is grappling with the issue, Saltmarsh said. “Ninety percent of the people incarcerated will be released someday,” she said. “We haven’t dealt with what’s going to happen to them when they’re released. To make sure that people don’t re-offend.”

That would require adding capacity to drug treatment centers, mental health clinics, adult education and job-partnership programs, all of which have faced budget cuts during the past decade.

“Right now, we say that we don’t have the money to do that,” Saltmarsh said. “But part of that is because we have too many people in prison.”

Ware is now living at St. Leonard’s House, a halfway house two blocks west of the United Center. He said he’s serious about putting his life back together. “I’m too old [to be incarcerated] now.”

But putting his past behind him seems impossible at times. “I put in for jobs that I’ve been waiting for a year, and they never got back in touch with me,” Ware said. “I call them, and the first thing they tell me is that they haven’t even looked at my application yet. I done put in so many applications. And it’s sad.”

He’s making ends meet by delivering pizzas on the weekends. The last long-term job he held was as a janitor at a West Side day care center. He can include that four-year stint on his application, but that pales in comparison to his criminal record.

For now, he’s leaning hard on St. Leonard’s. “There aren’t many people who would clothe you and feed you and tell you, ‘You can do anything.’”

On the weekends, he stays in Austin with his three children and visits family and old friends.

“I go back to the neighborhood just to say, ‘This is how it was.’ I think, ‘Man, I used to be that guy on the corner high on [drugs].’ Now I realize that there’s nothing out there but trouble,” he said.

James Reddick helped research this article.

is a staff reporter at The Chicago Reporter.