Second chance law gives hope to first-time Illinois drug offenders

As some people have already had the misfortune of learning, drug offenses are violations that the state of Illinois takes very seriously. People living in Illinois were reminded of this in Dec. 2013, when President Barack Obama pardoned a Rockford man who was sentenced to life in prison for a nonviolent drug crime at age 17. Fortunately, people in Cook County who are facing first-time charges for nonviolent felonies will no longer have to face such situations, since a new Illinois law makes probation and dismissal of charges a possibility for certain felony offenses.

Mandatory Minimums Lead To Life Sentence

According to NBC Chicago, at the end of last year, President Obama commuted the sentences of eight people who had been convicted of drug crimes and were serving lengthy prison terms. One was a man from Rockford, Chicago, who in 1994 was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 17. He was arrested for a drug offense that did not involve violence, and he had no prior criminal record, yet under mandatory minimum-sentencing guidelines implemented at the federal level, he was sentenced to life in prison.

In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act changed or eliminated parts of the law that helped determine the man's sentencing, including the mandatory five-year minimum prison time for possession of crack cocaine. Still, first-time drug offenders in Illinois could face harsh fines and even lengthy prison sentences before the passage of the new second chance probation law.

First-Time Offenders Given Second Chance

The law makes the following stipulations:

  • People who are convicted of certain Class 3 or Class 4 felony charges may be given probation rather than a mandatory minimum prison time sentence.
  • The offenses must be nonviolent, and the offender must have no prior record of felonies.
  • If the defendant follows the terms of probation, charges against him or her will be dropped at the end of the probation period.
  • If the terms of probation are violated, the court can proceed with sentencing.

Various Class 3 or Class 4 felonies are covered under the law, including forgery, retail theft and property damage. The possession of certain controlled substances, including methamphetamine and cannabis, is additionally covered under the law.

Although stories like that of the Rockford man are uncommon, these cases do exist. Now, though, with the second chance law in place, Illinois courts will have the ability to evaluate whether a first-time offender truly deserves a harsh sentence or would be better served by the opportunity to make behavioral adjustments.

Of course, it is still important for anyone facing even first-time drug charges to take those charges very seriously, no matter how favorable the circumstances of the crime and arrest may seem. If you have been arrested for a drug offense in Illinois, make sure to speak with an experienced criminal attorney so that you can understand your rights and choices going forward.