Muslims Draft, Push Through Drug Treatment Legislation

by Isra Bhatty

Perhaps for the first time in American legislative history, a Muslim organization has drafted and helped push through a social justice initiative signed into law.

After nearly two years of research, drafting, organizing, and lobbying, the Inner-city Muslim Action Network (IMAN), along with other grassroots Chicago organizations comprising the Developing Justice Coalition (DJC), recently hailed the passage and signing of the SMART Act (Substance Abuse Management Addressing Recidivism through Treatment). The SMART Act diverts low-level, nonviolent drug offenders towards rehabilitation and treatment to drug schools and away from the downward spiral of incarceration.

For the DJC as a whole, the success of the SMART Act brought with it tremendous excitement, a feeling that pervaded a celebratory event for the Act that took place last Monday at Chicago’s Ambassadors for Christ Church. But for IMAN, the Act’s success also carried an especially deep sense of accomplishment. Two years ago, when the idea of legislating diversionary drug treatment had been in its nascent stages, IMAN joined the DJC in its research and planning efforts. Only a few months later, IMAN took on a leadership role in the DJC’s initiative. Soon afterwards, in perhaps the most directly profound illustration of IMAN’s involvement, lawyer and IMAN board member Maaria Mozaffar became the primary author of the SMART Act legislation.

As the only Muslim organization in the DJC, IMAN brought a unique voice to the planning of and mobilization around the SMART Act initiative. Motivated by the Islamic imperative of civil engagement, IMAN’s Project Restore, a task group that included Mozaffar, IMAN Executive Director Rami Nashashibi, and group leader Rafi Peterson, was charged with leading IMAN’s efforts at the DJC and specifically those related to the SMART Act.

Project Restore was founder in September 2005 as an outgrowth of an earlier campaign for the expungement of certain criminal records. It found its first task, however, in mobilizing the greater Chicagoland Muslim community around the SMART Act legislative initiative. Beginning in early 2006 and continuing for the next year, Project Restore organized numerous trips to Springfield, mobilizing each time a group of at least fifty Muslims of all ages and ethnicities from around Chicagoland to lobby in favor of the SMART Act. Together with the bus-loads of individuals mobilized by other DJC organizations and the sponsors of the bill, the SMART Act passed through the House (75-40-0) and Senate (57-0-0) and was subsequently signed into law by Governor Rod Blagojevich.

The SMART Act not only represents the pioneering efforts of a grassroots coalition that represents Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but also the creation of a potentially powerful legislative vehicle for reforming the manner that the criminal justice system addresses greater social problems.

The SMART Act was drafted with a simple intention: to intervene in the early stages of drug involvement and stop the cycle of drug abuse that often leads to more severe criminal activity, harsher punishments involving incarceration, and detriment to the community. For the DJC, simple statistics emphasized the need for diversionary drug treatment programs. The 3-year recidivism rate, for example, for incarcerated nonviolent drug offenders is 54% and the cost of incarcerating each offender averages about $22,000. At the same time, an in-state model of a court diversion drug school run by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office provided a blue print for the exact type of intervention. The Drug School admits low-level drug offenders into a program of weekly 8-hour courses that last for a month. Those who successfully complete the program have their cases dismissed and their records may be immediately expunged, while those who do not complete the Drug School continue with their court proceedings. For those who have completed the Drug School program, the 3-year recidivism rate is less than fifteen percent.

The SMART Act will allow counties to establish programs that model this successful Drug School template. It stipulates that those in danger of failing to comply with a court mandate to complete the program will receive a clinical assessment to determine whether substance abuse treatment would be appropriate and, if so, receive a referral to a suitable treatment provider. In addition to its impact on ex-offenders, the SMART Act aims to have substantial public safety, public health, education, and fiscal impacts.

The next step for the DJC is to win approximately $1.9 million to fund planning grants for counties without drug schools, statewide public education, and technical support, and to supplement drug school funding for Cook County. This appropriation bid currently appears in HB4093.

IMAN, like the rest of the members of the DJC, is prepared for this next challenge. Monday’s celebratory event made it clear that the fight for the SMART Act was but the first of many cooperative legislative endeavors for the DJC.

Reflecting the DJC’s dedication to criminal justice reform, one ex-offender declared Monday, “I will camp out every night at the steps of the State Capitol if I have to – I got a second chance, now this is my life’s work.”