Committee eyes proposals to change sentencing practices for drug offenses


A joint hearing of the Senate Criminal Law and Public Safety Committees on Tuesday took up the subject of drug sentencing reform.

The meeting was a subject-matter only hearing, meaning it was for informational purposes and no legislative remedies were proposed or voted upon.

Ben Ruddell, criminal justice policy director with the American Civil Liberties Union, called for the reduction of penalties for all drug offenses.

“Our recommendation is reforms for all drug offenses to take them down by at least one class, including reducing simple possession from a felony to a misdemeanor,” Ruddell said.

White County States Attorney Denton Aud said downgrading drug charges would not give offenders an incentive to seek help.

“If they are coming into contact with the criminal justice system with a felony hanging over them as a possible penalty is believed to be the incentive to get them to not only start out treatment but complete treatment,” Aud said.

In 2015, then-Gov. Bruce Rauner created a criminal justice task force to identify areas of the criminal justice system that could be reformed that would result in a 25% reduction in the prison population by 2025. Advocates say the best way to start is to change how the state responds to low-level drug felonies.

In addition to being overcrowded and expensive for taxpayers to maintain, some have questioned the Illinois Department of Corrections’ rehabilitation efforts. According to Illinois Policy, nearly half of all drug offense prisoners released each year suffer a relapse or are convicted of a new crime within three years of release.

Aud said the goal is not to throw drug offenders behind bars.

“We don’t want to felonize people, so if someone has a drug offense, we want them to get that first offender probation,” Aud said. “We want them to complete it, we want the case to be dismissed and go away.”

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