Earlier today, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance pushed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to let the Chicago Police Department issue $250 to $500 tickets to people caught with 15 grams or less of pot, instead of arresting them. The ordinance passed by a 44-3 vote. Most aldermen who spoke on the council floor gave the same talking points: Black residents are a disproportionate target of marijuana arrests, the Cook County court dismisses most pot arrests, and ticketing will save police resources.
“We are running on a treadmill,” said Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd). He pointed out that about 90 percent of arrests are dismissed.
“When I get calls in my office at 2 a.m., it’s about shootings, not marijuana possession,” said Ald. Will Burns (4th). In pushing for the ordinance, which was sponsored by Ald. Danny Solis (25th), Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy estimated ticketing would save 20,000 hours of police time each year. Arrests compel police to bring subjects to a CPD local district, and also show up at the suspect’s court date.
Ald. Ed Burke (14th) recited 2011 Chicago Police Department statistics that of the 20,603 arrests for pot, 15,862 of those arrested were black versus about 1,000 who were white. “You are 16 time more likely to be arrested for possession of cannabis if you are an African American in Chicago,” Burke said. “The system is broken.”
Unclear is whether racial disparities will be less severe when CPD goes from arrests to tickets, Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd) called for a six-month implementation review, an idea several colleagues echoed.
In remarks to the council after the vote, Emanuel generically stated that evaluation of the ordinance's implementation will happen “on an ongoing basis.”
Regardless, black aldermen agreed with Burke that ticketing is a big improvement over a status quo where even dismissed arrests show up on criminal background checks.
A handful of aldermen argued that decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana sends the wrong message to children. “Young people see this as a license to smoke marijuana,” said Ald. Robert Maldanado (26th), one of the three ‘no’ votes.
Emanuel countered that the status quo sends a worse signal. “I can’t think of a message that is more undermining to child than knowing 90 percent of cases are thrown out,” Emanuel said.
Kathleen Kane-Willis, a professor at Roosevelt University and director of the Illinois Consortium of Drug Policy, said that a number of details must be monitored regarding implementation, such as how CPD trains police.
Willis, though, viewed the ordinance as a progressive breakthrough. “It is a shift in our criminal justice policy toward a more public health approach,” Willis says.
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