2022 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Small/Medium Newsroom finalist

The Costly Toll of Dead-end Drug Arrests

About the Project

There might be no better lens through which to assess how society views some of its most powerless citizens than the way the criminal justice system treats people arrested for small-time drug possession.

In Chicago, thousands of felony drug possession cases clog the courtrooms every year. They involve the possession of less than one gram of heroin or cocaine — about what a paper clip weighs — and, in many cases, no more than the residue left in a baggie that held drugs.

It’s a never-ending churn of dead-end drug arrests that even Chicago’s chief prosecutor calls a failure of the criminal justice system. And it’s only getting worse, with the number of such heroin and cocaine cases tossed out at the earliest stages soaring in recent years.

Few were willing to defend the way drug cases are handled in Cook County. Yet no one has tried to stop it. “The Costly Toll of Dead-end Drug Arrests” explores this institutional failure in Chicago but also takes readers to Oregon, where the reporters traveled across the state, finding the nation’s most ambitious drug reform hasn’t met its promises.

“I can’t pay the phone bill,” says Raymond Galloway, 48, a line cook at a soul food restaurant who was arrested on the city’s West Side twice in 2021 over small amounts of heroin. Galloway spent weeks in jail before a judge dismissed the charges, as has been the court system’s practice for years with cases involving the possession of small amounts of drugs, the BGA and Sun-Times found. “I’m two months behind on my rent. Child support, I got kids to take care of. I can’t do anything.”

Galloway is among those jailed on minor drug possession charges that cops, the prosecutors and the judges understood all along would quickly and routinely get thrown out, reporters found.

It’s easy to look at the continuing proliferation of drug addiction and conclude the nation’s “war on drugs” is a failure. What made this reporting stand out is that it revealed the complicity of the court system in that failure.

Underlying the reporting was an unprecedented compilation of data on felony arrests in Cook County made possible through the BGA’s participation in The Circuit, a partnership of Chicago news organizations that spent about three years scraping and “cleaning” court data from the Cook County clerk of courts.

The analysis based on that compilation of data made it possible to document and, for the first time, report that prosecutors and judges have systematically engaged in this unwritten policy of routinely dropping criminal charges in these cases.

The data analysis showed these drug arrests are the result of policy decisions. With all other felonies, the decision on whether to file criminal charges in Cook County is in the hands of the prosecutor’s felony review staff. Not so with drug possession. In those cases, it’s left to the police to decide whether someone is charged — and having even trace amounts of drugs in Illinois is a felony.