On Ohio Street, just north of Garfield Park in Chicago, three drug dealers stood on a corner surrounded by litter, vacant lots and boarded-up houses, waiting for customers who strolled up on foot and pulled over in cars. Some passed right underneath a flashing police surveillance camera less than a block away.
Only a few weeks earlier in this same West Side neighborhood, Chicago police had shut down a bustling open-air market selling fentanyl-laced heroin, arresting more than a dozen members of the Conservative Vice Lords street gang. A patrol cop later described the bust as an example of the mushroom effect -- pull one out and several more just pop up in its place.
In the suburbs, police say drug dealing has an entirely different, more private face.
"There are some who work out of their apartment or residence, some who will just meet you wherever they feel safe in meeting you. Some people will do it out of their work," said Lombard Police Chief Raymond Byrne. "It's kind of the opposite of the city."
Twenty-five years after President Ronald Reagan declared a war on drugs, many law-enforcement officials and criminologists say drugs are now cheaper and more potent, and as easily available as ever.
What the war did do was help drive the nation's prison population to more than quadruple its size from 1980 to 2005, with urban blacks and Latinos hardest hit -- a dramatically disproportionate result of the different networks that developed to distribute drugs.
According to federal data, blacks make up just 13 percent of the nation's illicit drug users, but they are 32 percent of those arrested for drug violations and 53 percent of those incarcerated in state prisons for drug crimes.
In Illinois, studies show that more than 70 percent of the state's illicit drug users are white, while 14 percent are black. But 65 percent of arrests for drug offenses are of African-Americans. And 66 percent of inmates in Illinois prisons for drug offenses are black, and Illinois' incarceration rate of blacks for drug possession is the highest in the country.
The never-ending flow of drugs, and the disparity in punishment, are leading an increasing number of judges, attorneys and criminologists to the conclusion that the nation's efforts to fight drug use with the criminal justice system will not, by itself, get the job done.
Tim Evans, chief judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, said more people in the criminal justice system now recognize that treatment and other options are far more effective in reducing drug use.
"There was a thought back in the 1980s that it was better to be tough on crime than to be said not to be tough on crime; that if you just lock these people away that somehow that's going to solve everything," Evans said. "Hasn't worked. And I believe now the pendulum is swinging away from lock 'em up and throw away the key back toward trying to find a rational way of solving this problem."
Impact of 'safe zone' laws
And the more lawmakers try to fine-tune drug laws, the more pronounced the imbalance becomes.
A Tribune analysis of recent "safe zone" laws, increasing penalties for drug sales near schools, churches, parks and other public places, shows the laws blanket many densely populated minority neighborhoods, further boosting the punishment level for urban dealers.
In explaining the disparity in incarceration, criminologists point to a basic difference in the way drugs are sold in cities and suburbs, one that makes African-Americans more vulnerable to arrest and imprisonment for drug possession and sales.
Drug dealing in inner-cities happens largely in open-air markets controlled by street gangs, who run a sophisticated, organized crime enterprise that, police say, is responsible for the bulk of violent crime in urban areas. Police target these marketplaces because that's where most calls for police services originate.
Open-air drug markets are rarer in white, middle- and upper-class neighborhoods, where dope dealing typically occurs within social networks, in places that draw little police attention, criminologists say.
"Police go looking for this stuff in cities where they don't look for it in suburbs because it's not causing the same kind of violence," said John Klofas, a criminologist at the Rochester Institute of Technology. "And if you're only looking at this as punishment for drug use, then it's a complicated set of circumstances that in the end produces this outcome that is, in fact, quite unfair."
In Illinois, the racial disparity in drug arrests is driven mainly by Chicago. In 2005, Chicago police made 47,000 arrests for drug offenses, and 79 percent of those arrests were of African-Americans, according to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.
Illinois does not track arrests by ethnicity, so it is impossible to pinpoint how Latinos fit on this spectrum.
But anecdotally, police say black neighborhoods are home to nearly all of Chicago's open-air drug markets, mostly in high-crime, high-poverty areas on the city's South and West Sides. Law-enforcement officials estimate the drug trade is responsible for up to 70 percent of the violent crime in the city.
"Most of the violence in Chicago on the West Side and the South Side is gang-related and it always stems back to some kind of fight over narcotics or narcotics turf or a narcotics corner," said Walter P. Hehner, deputy chief of narcotics prosecutions for the Cook County state's attorney's office. "Drug dealers, hookers, panhandlers, all hanging out there looking for money so they can get high."
Imprisoned at home
Ald. Walter Burnett's West Side 27th Ward was the site of the first open-air drug market shut down by police this year. Burnett said he is constantly fielding calls from residents who want police to shut down drug operations in the area.
Not only do residents feel they are imprisoned in their homes by the gang violence, he said, but they are also frustrated by the constant property crimes and street hustling committed by the drug users traveling into the neighborhood to buy dope.
"They steal everything," Burnett said. "They steal water hoses, they steal garbage cans, they steal gutters off of buildings. They break into houses, they break into cars. If you have children or a wife, you don't want them outside because these [drug users] are going to be walking all around looking like zombies."
Shutting down these outdoor markets is a centerpiece to the police's strategy of attacking guns, gangs and drugs in Chicago. Last year, Chicago police shut down 56 open-air drug markets, amounting to nearly 600 arrests. Frank Limon, chief of the Chicago police's Organized Crime Division, said police are pushing aggressive street operations such as undercover surveillance, drug buys and reverse stings, in which cops pose as drug dealers to snag buyers.
"That's all we continually do is set up operations where we can arrest buyers and go after sellers," Limon said. "Even though it's one corner, it's one less open-air drug market that's available for users to go to."
Police efforts have not gone unnoticed by drug users. Angel, a 32-year-old heroin user from Chicago who frequents West Side open-air markets, said the threat of arrest for buying drugs is greater now than he can remember in his 12 years as a heroin addict. Angel claims that he's been arrested five times for drug possession after buying, and that he's been stopped by police dozens more just being near a West Side drug market.
"It's hot," Angel said. "Hotter now than ever. You go out there at the wrong time and you're just looking to get locked up."
But Angel continues to buy drugs from open-air markets.
"I've been locked up and it's no joke," he said. "But when you're dope sick, you're going to go out and cop."
Nicole, a 21-year-old heroin user from Park Ridge, said it's much easier for her to buy drugs in the suburbs, but she goes to Chicago's West Side markets because she believes the quality is better. Stories of overdoses from fentanyl-laced heroin sold in the city only serve as an enticement for suburban heroin users, she said.
"The twisted part is, when I hear about a spot where people have died because it's so good, I want to go there," Nicole said.
Disturbing trend in Chicago
Chicago alone accounts for two-thirds of all drug offender arrests in Illinois. But what disturbs some like Cook County Assistant Public Defender Kristina Yi is the homogeneity of those arrested for drug crimes passing through the Cook County Criminal Courts building at 26th Street and California Avenue.
"You can't miss once you walk into that building that the majority of civilians coming in for their own cases or a loved one's case are predominantly black people," Yi said. "There are some female blacks arrested for simple possession, some older blacks, very few and far between some Caucasian males brought in for simple possession. But rarely did we get a case that involved someone that's not a minority. Usually they were young male blacks."
Arthur J. Lurigio, professor of criminal justice at Loyola University, said police are simply following reports of crime.
"If you live in a suburb that has a small police department and low crime, the chances of you being stopped when you're walking down the street or driving in your car is significantly less than if you live in Englewood or Harrison or Wentworth," Lurigio said. "The police are not there because they're racists, the police are there because there's more crime there and there's more calls for service there. So if there's more police in a neighborhood, you're just more likely to be stopped, no matter what."
Hehner, of the state's attorney's office, said arrests for drug possession often result from other kinds of police stops -- officers are looking for violent offenders, but they see suspects trying hurriedly to get rid of their drugs, so-called "drop cases." It's an unavoidable part of good police work, he said.
Bob Lee, of the Felony Trial Division at the Cook County's public defender's office in Bridgeview, views it differently. He says many of the drop cases he sees in court stem from police efforts to curtail drug use by sweeping whole neighborhoods.
Paul Butler, a law professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., believes that what's driving aggressive policing in black neighborhoods is simple racial profiling. Butler said police, including black officers, selectively enforce the drug laws in the black community because they believe that blacks simply need more drug law enforcement.
"Police and prosecutors use the statistics about the number of African-Americans who get arrested for drug use as a reason to look more closely at African-Americans for that crime," Butler said. "And, of course, if you're especially looking among African-Americans, then you'll find more African-Americans. There's an important relationship between looking for something and finding it."
Not only are blacks more likely to be arrested for possession and sale of drugs, they are also more likely to face stiffer punishment for those crimes because of sentencing enhancements tied to particular drug offenses. Federal law, for instance, mandates tougher sentences for crack cocaine, the smokable version of cocaine popular among inner-city drug users, than for powder cocaine, a form of the drug more prevalent among suburban whites.
Blacks are also disproportionately affected by amendments to the Illinois Controlled Substances Act that prescribe mandatory prison terms for selling drugs within 1,000 feet of places such as schools, churches, public housing and parks. According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, 90 percent of Illinois inmates with a primary offense of violating these so-called "safe zone" laws are African-American.
A Tribune analysis examining the locations of churches, schools, public parks and public housing developments found that nearly 70 percent of Chicago is within 1,000 feet of one or more such site.
A sampling of predominantly African-American neighborhoods in Chicago revealed that 97 percent of East Garfield Park, 99 percent of West Garfield Park, 98 percent of Woodlawn, 96 percent of Englewood and 82 percent of Austin fall within "safe zones."
"Chicago is going to have huge pockets of its square mileage that are in protected zones," said state Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale). "It would be useful to see how the drug-free-zone laws have worked. And if it hasn't worked, either modify it or take it off the statute books."
'Intimate sales' in suburbs
That density of public facilities does not exist in most suburbs. Neither, suburban police say, do the open-air drug markets that make obvious targets.
"Open-air markets are very unusual out here," said Paul Marchese, supervising attorney of the Narcotics and Gang Unit of the DuPage County state's attorney's office. "I've been here for 16 years and I can count in the single digits what we would imagine an open-air drug market in DuPage County."
Without the open-air drug markets and the attendant violent and property crime that orbit them, suburban police officers don't make the huge number of arrests for drug offenses like in Chicago, according to Terry Lemming, statewide drug and gun enforcement coordinator for the Illinois State Police.
"Open-air drug markets are an immediate problem because of all the related violence that goes with them," Lemming said. "The intimate sales of the suburbs are not a situation where the safety of citizens is at risk. The more intimate drug sales in the suburbs have to be attacked with a different way of enforcement."
The disparity in arrests has contributed to a lasting perception that blacks use illegal drugs at much higher rates than other racial groups.
However, a 2003 study by the University of Illinois at Chicago's Survey Research Laboratory found that rates of illicit drug use in Illinois were in fact essentially equal across racial groups. Nationally, similar results were found by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
"One of the very significant misconceptions about drug use is that we sort of spontaneously assume that the majority of people who use illegal drugs would be minorities, which is not true," said Young Ik Cho, a professor with the Survey Research Lab at UIC. "Over and over again we have been emphasizing the fact that it is not really specific or exclusive to certain groups. It's all over."
That's the essential problem with using the criminal justice system to wage a war on drugs, said Camille Kozlowski, a chief of the Cook County public defender's office in Skokie.
"African-Americans and minorities have always been overwhelmingly overrepresented in the criminal justice system," she said. "So it stands to reason when you're going to fight this war on drugs, it's going to be the same thing.
"But if what you're really trying to do is stop people from using drugs, then wouldn't it be logical to go after everyone equally?"
By Darnell Little Chicago Tribune