We Need to Defund, Not Defend, Police. Black Lives Are Depending On It.
Addiction is universally and unequivocally regarded as a chronic brain disease within the medical community and has no place in our criminal justice system. But thanks to the “War on Drugs,” our criminal justice system has spent the last several decades rejecting science in favor of draconian drug policies that have yielded nothing but casualties. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people with this disease wind up confined in facilities where they receive no treatment, concern, compassion, or empathy for their disease. Without treatment, 95% of substance abusers will relapse within one month of their release from jail, and 68% will wind up re-incarcerated within a year.
It's no secret that the "War on Drugs" was racially-motivated.
"The Nixon White House had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. . . We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
—John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s Chief of Staff, regarding Nixon’s declaration of U.S. drug war
The “War on Drugs” has been dubbed the “biggest policy failure of all time.” Since the inception of this war in 1971, the number of people incarcerated in the United States has skyrocketed by over 700%. Today, there are currently more people incarcerated for just drug offenses than there were for any offense in 1980. By no coincidence, Black Americans comprise 14% of the U.S. population, and 40% of its incarcerated population. In Cook County, the racial bias is even more acute; Black people comprise 75% of the jail population, but only 25% of the general population. Indeed, drug offenses are the most common reason for arrests in Cook County.
The drug war did not create institutional racism or disregard for Black life in the U.S., but it feeds and bolsters the racist structures that snuff out Black life daily. With George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others before them, drug involvement—whether perceived or real—has provided a convenient excuse for law enforcement to dehumanize Black Americans, strip them of their dignity, and undermine the sanctity of human life. Breonna Taylor drew her last breath in the hallway of her apartment where police fired 22 rounds during a forced-entry drug raid of the wrong unit. George Floyd drew his last breath after one police officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, and another taunted "Don’t do drugs, kids!" to a crowd of onlookers.
Evidently, the real danger is not drugs, but the ways in which the color of one’s skin makes them a target for brutal mistreatment by police. Under the false pretense of keeping America “drug free,” law enforcement casually continues to target Black Americans for harassment and arrest, leading to violent encounters that too often end in death. We are no longer willing to stand idly by and watch these corrupt and racist institutions inflict violence on our neighbors and undermine decades of efforts to improve their chances of success and level the playing field. This call to “defund the police” being echoed across the country is our final call.
Recognizing and acknowledging the racist and destructive legacies that we have allowed to flourish for half a century—which bear an uncanny resemblance to slavery and Jim Crow—is a moral and ethical responsibility of our public officials. In light of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others before them, jurisdictions across the country of all sizes have finally begun to reevaluate the role that law enforcement plays in their communities; many have already taken dramatic steps to try to rectify the wrongs perpetrated on people of color by our legal system and law enforcement. It is time for Cook County to do the same. Considering that Cook County is home to the second-highest total number of Black Americans nationwide, the Cook County Board of Commissioners should naturally be reevaluating the county’s budget priorities with respect to policing, criminalization, and incarceration.
Cook County spends more than $600 million each year supporting racist institutions that predictably and unnecessarily blight thousands of disadvantaged Black lives. In 2011, Cook County was considered the largest jail in the country, averaging a total daily inmate population of 10,000. However, the incarceration rate in Cook County has declined upwards of 50% since 2013. This dramatic decline can be attributed to numerous community organizations, among them being A2A, the Chicago Urban League, the Shriver’s Center, and the Chicago Community Bond Fund. By using evidence-based approaches that incorporate basic constitutional principles, these and other like-minded community organizations have helped successfully reduce both rates of pretrial detention and recidivism.
Given the absurdly high cost of incarcerating one person in Cook County, one would imagine that such a drastic decline in the Cook County Jail’s average daily inmate population would coincide with a proportional decrease in the Sheriff’s budget for the jail. But, it hasn’t. In spite of the jail’s drastic population decline since 2013, its operational budget has increased by 26%. It costs taxpayers somewhere around $40,000 to detain one person for one year in Cook County. If the jail’s budget had actually decreased in proportion to decarceration, it would have freed up at least $117 million worth of annual funding for critical public and social support services that would benefit the county’s most marginalized residents.
Righting the wrongs of this unjust system calls for, at minimum, channeling funding previously used to desecrate Black communities towards resources that actually strengthen Black communities. It calls for restitution; rehabilitation, mental and physical health support; compensation, both monetary and resource-based, which includes a meaningful transfer of wealth; acknowledgement of guilt and an apology; and guarantees of non-repeat. Divesting from the Cook County Jail is merely a starting point, but it will free up resources that will enable us to begin the process of restitution and repair. By voting in favor of the Justice for Black Lives Resolution, the Cook County Board of Commissioners will be pushing the proverbial “reset” button that will jumpstart a healing process that is centuries overdue, and disrupt a broken system that chips away daily at the very core of our humanity.