Local officials in Cook County, the state and western suburbs are rethinking how to enforce petty marijuana possession crimes.

The movement appears to be trending toward assessing fines and mandating treatment versus simply locking offenders up. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle made news in late July by strongly suggesting that Chicago police stop arresting low-level marijuana users, saying judges often dismiss such cases when they come before them. Citing the $142-per day cost to house an inmate, Preckwinkle said she wants to see more money go toward treatment and education. The jails, she noted, are clogged with such petty drug offenders.

Austin state Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-8th) earlier this year introduced a bill in the state legislature that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, instead charging offenders a fine and making treatment an option rather than a prison term.

Ford echoes much of what Preckwinkle says.

He introduced his legislation, House Bill 100, in January but it’s been buried in the General Assembly’s rules committee since mid-March. If approved, it would amend the state’s Cannabis Control Act and make the possession of anything less than 28.35 grams (1 ounce) of marijuana a minor offense.

Fines of $500, $750 and $1,000 would be issued on a first, second or third offenses respectively.

Officials and residents in neighboring Oak Park are also pondering decriminalizing low-level marijuana offenses and opting instead for assessing fines, treatment and education. Ford is planning to host a town hall in September around the issue to seek the community’s input. The time, location and participants are still being worked out, he said.

Ford, a two-term state rep, and Preckwinkle, who was elected county board president in 2010, have questioned the effectiveness and cost of using overcrowded county courts, and county jail, to deal with petty marijuana cases. Ford insisted he’s not looking to decriminalize drugs but to get people into treatment.

“If we can stop clogging up the courts and can reduce the number of people that become felons, I think that’s an issue worth pursuing,” he said. This is costing us millions of dollars because we have to put them in prison and take care of them for the rest of their lives.”

Depopulating prisons

In Cook County, a large number of possession cases are dropped during preliminary hearings, according the Preckwinkle’s office, yet, alleged offenders can spend weeks in jail waiting for the case to be heard. Ford said his bill is one way to depopulate prisons by preventing people from entering in the first place.

He noted that prisons across the country are filled with non-violent, petty drug offenders, adding that housing those inmates has put a drain on state budgets.

“We’re really not helping anyone if we keep looking to fill prisons,” he said.

According to Ford, his bill would funnel a large portion of the collected fines to social services, such as hiring more police-a small portion will go to drug prevention programs for kids. But the legislation has stalled in Springfield. Ford, who also represents Oak Park, is the bill’s only sponsor and, so far, no other state lawmakers have publicly expressed their support.

Rick Tanksley, Oak Park’s chief of police, said a discussion about how to deal with petty marijuana offenses should take place. Tanksley said his officers can spend an hour or more of their day dealing with low-level marijuana cases, and longer if those cases involve youth.

Under the state’s current Cannabis Control Act, possessing anything less than 30 grams is a misdemeanor offense, and anything above that amount is a felony. Cannabis substances, according to the act, include marijuana and hashish. Preckwinkle’s focus, though, is only on marijuana, she says.

Oak Park police and a local parent group there are readying a recommendation to their Village Board of Trustees this fall that will likely focus on fines and treatment instead of prosecution. Tanksley stressed that nothing has been finalized yet. The Oak Park police chief said people do make mistakes but end up with a permanent record that will follow them.

“If we can get help early on for these kids and put them through our local adjudication system instead of placing them in the courts, that offense won’t follow them when they go off to school and later when they enter the workplace, and have to explain why they have this possession charge,” Tanksley said.

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com