Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle decried the war on drugs and its cost to society Wednesday at the Palatine Area Chamber of Commerce breakfast.
Preckwinkle was asked a question about reforming the criminal justice system and Cook County Jail during the breakfast at The Cotillion, 360 S. Creekside Drive.
“We have 5 percent of the world’s population and we have 25 percent of the world’s prison population. So unless you think that Americans are more likely to be criminals than people elsewhere in the world, we are doing something terribly wrong,” Preckwinkle said. “And it’s extraordinarily expensive.”
Preckwinkle said the yearly cost of housing a single prisoner exceeds $50,000 a year. She said that 70 percent of the Cook County Jail population is there for non-violent offenses and many of them are low-level drug offenses.
“We started [in] the 1980s a terribly misguided and destructive war on drugs in this country,” Preckwinkle said.
She said that although about 8 percent to 10 percent of illicit drug use exists across races, minorities are arrested for the offenses at a disparate rate.
“If you look at our jails, our jails are filled with black and brown young men. The jail population does not reflect illicit drug use in this country,” Preckwinkle said. “What I usually say is that our jail is at the intersection of poverty and racism in this country. And it’s not just us it’s across the board.”
“We’ve got some tough issues to deal with around criminal justice and the way in which our laws are being administered,” Preckwinkle said. “We spend half a billion dollars a year on our jail. You can do a lot with half a billion dollars. Especially when 70 percent of the people in your jail are awaiting trial for non-violent offenses.”
Preckwinkle said many of the non-violent offenders commit crimes such as shoplifting or prostitution to support a drug habit.
“Instead of dealing with our addiction problem in this country with a public health response, we’ve responded by criminalizing people,” Preckwinkle said. “And I would suggest that’s destructive to those individuals. It’s destructive to the communities they come out of and its extraordinarily expensive to the rest of us.”
Preckwinkle said the public safety portion of the county – sheriff’s department, state’s attorney – are attempting to reduce the county jail population by 1,000 during the year. She said the county will use personal recognizance bonds, electronic monitoring and provide pre-trial services such as drug treatment for some non-violent offenders.