BGA Shares National Reporting Award with Sun-Times for Project on Drug-Possession Cases

Reporting on thousands of drug-possession cases in Cook County that were quickly dismissed at great cost to many received a best non-deadline reporting award from the Society for Professional Journalists. This was a USC Annenberg National Health Reporting Fellowship project as part of The Circuit, a multi-newsroom collaboration.

A used needle on the ground in Garfield Park in an area known for heroin use. (Brian Ernst/Sun-Times)

The Better Government Association was recognized with an award from the Society of Professional Journalists for an investigative project about drug possession in two states.

BGA reporters Casey Toner and Jared Rutecki shared the Sigma Delta Chi Award for best non-deadline reporting (circulation up to 100,000) with Frank Main of the Sun-Times.

The work for “The Costly Toll of Dead-End Drug Arrests” was in collaboration with the Chicago Sun-Times, and the USC Annenberg National Health Reporting Fellowship as part of The Circuit.

The project identified thousands of low-level drug arrests in which defendants were arrested and jailed on charges police, prosecutors and judges all knew were never going to stick. Reporters traveled to Oregon to explore a new law that changed drug possession from a criminal matter to a ticketed offense as an effort to get more users into treatment.

Following the release of the series, Chicago Police expanded eligibility for its drug diversion program, which offers treatment options while avoiding the high cost of incarceration and potential damage to careers and families.

This was the eighth national award that the BGA won or was shortlisted for in 2022.

The project was previously honored as best data reporting and best photography by the Chicago Headline Club, and received second-place honors for investigative reporting from the Illinois Press Association.

The Sigma Delta Chi Awards date back to 1932, when the Society of Professional Journalists first honored six individuals for contributions to journalism. The current program began in 1939. These awards later became the Sigma Delta Chi Awards. The awards recognize the best in professional journalism in categories covering print/online, audio, television, and more. Judges selected 74 official winners from 1,413 total entries.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

For a complete list of the winners and the categories, go here.