Why Gov. Rauner should sign marijuana decriminalization into law
Imposing civil fines instead of criminal penalties for marijuana possession is a smart first step toward changing how the state deals with low-level, nonviolent crimes.
Illinois needs to rethink how it addresses low-level, nonviolent offenses.
Spending in the Illinois Department of Corrections is at an all-time high. In fiscal year 2015, the state spent $1.4 billion on its corrections program, an increase of more than $184 million since 2007. A vast increase in the prison population has led to high costs for the state: large prison and jail budgets, growth in the number of people cycling in and out of incarceration, wasted human capital and an overall strain on a system too big to manage.
According to a report issued by the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform, 55 percent of the increase in prison admissions between 1989 and 2014 was due to increased admissions of individuals convicted of Class 4 felonies, with a large number of these individuals having been convicted of drug offenses, such as drug possession.
Changing sentencing for marijuana offenses is a small but simple way to keep low-risk, nonviolent offenders out of Illinois jails and prisons.
A bill awaiting Gov. Bruce Rauner’s signature is a good first step in the right direction. Senate Bill 2228 makes possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a fine of between $100 and $200. Right now, possession of up to 2.5 grams of marijuana is a Class C misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail. Possession of 2.5 to 10 grams is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.
The bill would also automatically expunge the civil citation from the record of anyone charged with possessing fewer than 10 grams of marijuana. This would occur within six months after the resolution of the offense and would reduce the chance that possession of small amounts of marijuana will keep a person from finding employment and supporting himself.
Marijuana possession is probably the most minor offense that can result in incarceration and is a serious waste of limited criminal-justice resources. Abolishing jail time for low-level marijuana possession can prevent the family hardship that often results when a person is incarcerated, as well as job loss, thereby preserving an offender’s long-term prospects for legal employment. Moreover, according to a financial impact analysis by the Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, exchanging criminal penalties for civil fines would result in a net benefit of up to $24 million to the state of Illinois over three years, including $15.1 million in avoided incarceration costs and up to $9.1 million in estimated ticket revenue from the fines.
But more needs to be done. As the governor aims to reduce the prison population by 25 percent by 2025, reforming punishment for marijuana offenses is low-hanging fruit. A small but not insignificant number of inmates in Illinois prisons, 672 people at the end of 2014, were serving time for violations of the Cannabis Control Act. Another 731 people were on parole. The $22,000 spent yearly per offender would be better focused on more serious offenses.
Other ways to conserve Illinois’ criminal-justice resources for handling more serious crimes include:
- Decriminalizing low-level possession of drugs besides marijuana, or establishing a defined threshold that triggers a felony drug possession charge, making possession of a controlled substance below that amount a misdemeanor. Currently in Illinois, possession of any amount of a controlled substance such as cocaine is at minimum a Class 4 felony, which comes with a potential prison sentence of one to three years.
- Raising the dollar threshold for charging someone with a felony theft offense. Now, theft of goods worth only $300 can result in a Class 4 felony retail theft charge, and stealing $500 from a person is a Class 3 felony theft. Class 3 felony convictions carry prison sentences of two to five years. States such as Wisconsin have set their felony theft thresholds at $2,500 with no increase in theft rates. Wisconsin’s rate of theft is actually lower than Illinois’.
Illinois voters have made clear they support cost-effective reforms to Illinois’ criminal-justice system – and want to see more reform in the future. Ninety-two percent of Illinois voters – including 92 percent of Democrats, 96 percent of Republicans and 93 percent of independents – favor reducing prison time for individuals convicted of low-risk, nonviolent offenses, according to polling commissioned by the U.S. Justice Action Network.
It’s time Illinois stopped wasting taxpayer dollars and redirect law enforcement attention toward serious, violent crimes. Marijuana decriminalization is one small but important step to reforming low-level sentencing and right-sizing the state’s criminal-justice system.