The Illinois House has voted to impose civil fines rather than criminal penalties for low-level marijuana possession.
In 2012, Chicago City Council voted to move to civil instead of criminal penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Nearly four years later, the rest of the state has followed suit.
On May 18, the Illinois House voted to move Illinois to ticket-based penalties for possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana. If the governor signs Senate Bill 2228, instead of making arrests, police will start issuing tickets ranging from $100 to $200 per offense. Previously, anyone caught with 10 grams or less of marijuana could have been charged with a misdemeanor, resulting in a fine of up to $1,500 and possible jail time of up to six months. Under SB 2228, anyone charged with the civil marijuana possession penalty would also automatically have his or her record expunged six months after the bill’s effective date.
Moving to civil from criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana means the state won’t continue devoting resources to keeping a number of nonviolent offenders behind bars, and will go a long way toward Illinois’ achieving Gov. Bruce Rauner’s goal of reducing the state’s prison population by 25 percent come 2025. Moving to civil penalties for low-level marijuana possession should result in at least two positive outcomes:
- Not burdening people with a debilitating criminal record: With good cause, employers and landlords conduct background checks before making hires and bringing on new tenants. But for someone who committed a nonviolent, low-level drug offense in the past, a criminal record becomes a red flag that prevents him from getting a job, applying for student loans and finding a place to live – in essence, keeping him from being a productive, independent citizen. For a person with a criminal record for minor possession charges, one small mistake can lead to a stunted future.
- Saving the state money: Illinois spends over $38,000 a year per prisoner, far more than any of its neighboring states. Its prisons are operating at 150 percent capacity. Illinois Department of Corrections data show that in 2013, the state’s prisons housed 8,946 people for violations of the Controlled Substances Act and Cannabis Control Act out of a total 48,877 prisoners. Jailing people for low-level possession offenses is an expensive prospect. Illinois spent $127 million on police, $72 million in judicial and legal costs, and $22 million in corrections costs to enforce marijuana possession laws in 2010, according to data from the American Civil Liberties Union. In 2012, the Chicago Tribune reported that then-Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said marijuana arrests take police up to four hours each. Spending this time and money on nonviolent offenses takes away the manpower needed to respond to violent crimes, and it also crowds out money for core government services.
Rauner vetoed a similar proposal in 2015, which would have set possession limits at 15 grams or less, and created maximum fines of $125. At that time, the governor expressed willingness to sign the bill if it was amended to lower the maximum possession amount and increase fine amounts.
Illinois’ criminal-justice system must ensure public safety – it must also be fair and effective. Refocusing priorities by reforming the way the system punishes people for low-level possession offenses will lower costs and allow police to focus on serious crimes, while also ensuring that the state doesn’t ensnare people caught with small amounts of marijuana in a costly and ineffective system.