UPDATED 06/21/12 – 4:30 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — A City Council panel has given the first stage of approval to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to allow police to issue tickets to people caught with small amounts of marijuana, rather than making arrests in all such cases.
The 13-1 vote by the Public Safety Committee came after Police Supt. Garry McCarthy defended the mayor’s plan, and assured aldermen that police would still be required to make arrests in three specific instances: if someone is caught smoking pot in public, if they have marijuana on school grounds, or if they have it at a public park. Voting “no” was Ald. Nick Sposato of the 36th Ward.
WBBM Newsradio Political Editor Craig Dellimore reports, to aldermen who fear that issuing tickets for possessing 15 grams or less of marijuana amounts to decriminalization, McCarthy noted the offense is still a crime, but issuing tickets in some cases – rather than arresting every suspect – would be a different way of handling it.
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio Political Editor Craig Dellimore reports
McCarthy also noted anyone under the age of 17 caught with such amounts of marijuana would not be eligible for tickets, only arrest. Further, if a person caught with small amounts of marijuana does not have proper identification, they could not get a ticket, but would be arrested.
Ald. Edward Burke (14th), a former police officer, suggested Thursday that parents of 17- and 18-year-olds issued tickets should be notified about the offense. McCarthy said that’s a good idea.
McCarthy said the mayor’s plan could potentially lead to more people being subject to penalties for possessing marijuana, as it would take police less time to issue a ticket than make an arrest.
The mayor has said he understands some aldermen have reservations about reducing the penalties for possessing small amounts of pot, but he hopes Thursday’s hearing would put those concerns to rest.
“I think they will, the aldermen will get comfortable with knowing there is a right way to spend the time of our police officers: fighting the gangs, gun violence, bringing safety and security throughout the city, as some people here have in their own neighborhood, and making sure it’s all there,” Emanuel said.
The proposal will be considered by the full City Council at its next meeting on Wednesday.
The mayor pointed out Thursday that the vast majority of minor marijuana possession cases are thrown out in court, which ties up police and court time that would be better spent focusing on major crimes and violence.
“About 80 percent of the cases are thrown out on these low-level amounts,” Emanuel said. “That uses court time, police time, resources, and – not only resources to pursue on a case that 80 percent are thrown out – all the time that you lose, when you could be doing which is more essential in my view, is fighting the big drug dealers and the gang bangers.”
But critics like former Bush administration official Andrea Barthwell say McCarthy and the Mayor Emanuel are misinformed.
“I think it’s ill conceived, poorly informed and just plain wrong,” she tells CBS 2’s Mike Puccinelli. “With the stroke of (the mayor’s) pen, he can undermine years of activities by concerned parents and treatment professionals to prevent drug use in our youth.”
Emanuel’s proposal would give officers the option of giving offenders a ticket with a fine of $250 to $500 for first offense. Anyone caught a second time within 30 days would face an automatic $500 fine.
The mayor also has changed his proposed ordinance so that some of the fines collected under his plan would be used to fund anti-drug campaigns aimed at youths.
The superintendent emphasized on the CBS 2 Morning News Thursday that the proposal to issue tickets for small marijuana cases does not actually amount to decriminalization.
“What it is is a different method of processing those arrests. If you look at the way this has been working over the years, almost 90 percent of these cases have been dismissed when they get to court, so we’re putting a lot of effort into something that we’re getting very little return on. It’s taking officers off the street for up to four to eight hours,” McCarthy said. “We’ll be able to do this in a half hour.”
McCarthy added that imposing a penalty will be easier now too, since it doesn’t require an arrest, a criminal charge and a court hearing on that charge.
“Now, there’s actually a sanction, as far as the fine is concerned, where before, these cases were getting dismissed almost outright, so it’s another method of creating an efficiency, if you will, in the department – getting cops back out on the street faster while at the same time enforcing the law,” he said.
“I think that has to be made very clear, and the Police Department has to show us – I think – that they’re not just going to blindly issue tickets to everybody that’s in possession of small amounts,” Burke said earlier this week. “There has to be a certain strategy to know which of these people that they could write a ticket to are eligible for a ticket.”
He also said he’s worried about the message that decriminalizing small-time marijuana cases would send to the city’s youth.
“Is this a slippery slope that we begin sliding down?” Burke said. “I’ll tell you, as a parent, I’m very concerned about anything that gives kids the idea that this is not a bad thing to do.”
Supporters have said issuing tickets for small-time marijuana cases would cut the cost of jailing drug offenders, and encourage police to focus on more serious crimes.
Last year, 18,298 arrests were made for possession of less than 10 grams of pot, but the vast majority of misdemeanor marijuana cases are dismissed, according to the mayor’s office. Each case requires the manpower of about four police officers – two for an arrest and two for a transport – and places a burden on the Cook County court and jail system.
Complaints about marijuana enforcement in Chicago have been mounting for years. Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st) pointed out last fall that even though use of marijuana is constant throughout the city, most arrests are of black and Hispanic defendants.
His comments mirror a Chicago Reader cover article published in July, which found that despite widespread use of marijuana across racial groups, a disproportionate number of those arrested, charged and convicted are African-American.
The analysis by Reader reporter-columnists Ben Joravsky and Mick Dumke found that of those arrested for marijuana possession last year and the year before, 78 percent were black, 17 percent were Hispanic, and only 5 percent were white.
In July of last year, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle called on McCarthy to end low-level marijuana arrests in the city. She declared that the war on drugs has failed, and said marijuana defendants are contributing to overcrowding in the Cook County Jail.