Chicago mayor calls for reform of sentencing for minor drug violations

While some states have recently relaxed drug laws, drug possession is still viewed seriously in Illinois, even when the amounts are small and the alleged offenders are nonviolent. Critics have contended that the state's strong policies on drug crimes waste resources needed elsewhere and fail to reduce drug use. In light of these issues, Chicago's mayor recently called for the reform of minor drug possession laws across the state, according to ABC News.

Reasonable punishment

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's proposal stems from a desire to use public and law enforcement resources more effectively. Reducing penalties for low-level offenses could save jail space, police time and financial resources, which could be focused on more serious crimes.

The mayor recently encouraged state legislators to turn possession of less than 1 gram of any controlled substance from a Class 4 felony into a Class A misdemeanor. The mayor also called for the penalty for possession of less than 15 grams of marijuana to be reduced from jail time to a ticket and fine.

The change in marijuana possession sentencing would be a statewide extension of a policy already in place in Chicago. For two years, police have had discretion in deciding whether to arrest or ticket people caught with less than 15 grams of the drug. More than one-fifth of enforcement in 2014 has been through tickets, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, and changes in the program have helped reduce racial arrest disparities.

Thirteen other states have enacted changes similar to the ones recently proposed in Illinois. Those states have not seen a spike in drug use, according to the Sun-Times. Proponents of reform also point out that research shows mandatory jail time for the possession of small amounts of controlled substances does not dissuade future use. It simply leaves alleged offenders facing harsh, often life-disrupting consequences.

Current penalties

The Illinois Controlled Substances Act and Cannabis Control Act specify legal consequences for people facing drug-related criminal charges. For charges of drug possession, sanctions depend on the nature of the offense:

  • Possession of less than 15 grams of a controlled substance other than methamphetamine is a Class 4 felony. Associated fines can reach $25,000.
  • Possession of over 15 grams of a controlled substance besides methamphetamine is a Class 1 felony. Imprisonment can range from four to 15 years.
  • Possession of 2.5 to 30 grams of marijuana is a Class A, B, or C misdemeanor, depending on the amount. If a person is charged twice for possession of 10 to 30 grams of marijuana, the second charge is escalated to a Class 4 felony.

If the mayor's recommendations become reality, the legal consequences for the most mild drug offenses could become more reasonable. In the meantime, though, these penalties can have serious impacts on a person's work, personal life and future prospects.

Anyone facing accusations of drug possession, regardless of the substance, the amount or the specific circumstances, should consider speaking with an attorney about protecting personal rights while dealing with the charges.