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Decriminalizing Pot: Step Toward Prison Reform in Illinois?

PHOTO: Supporters of legislation that would reduce the punishment for marijuana possession in Illinois say it would help reduce the prison population. House Bill 218 would eliminate criminal penalties for marijuana possession of up to 30 grams, replacing them with a $100 fine. Photo credit: diseldemon/Flickr.
PHOTO: Supporters of legislation that would reduce the punishment for marijuana possession in Illinois say it would help reduce the prison population. House Bill 218 would eliminate criminal penalties for marijuana possession of up to 30 grams, replacing them with a $100 fine. Photo credit: diseldemon/Flickr.
March 19, 2015

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - Correctional facilities in Illinois are over capacity, and supporters say a bill under consideration in Springfield would help reduce the prison population. House Bill 218, introduced by Representative Kelly Cassidy of Chicago, decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Bryant Jackson Green, Criminal Justice policy analyst with the Illinois Policy Institute, says it would help to redirect criminal-justice resources to focus on crimes with more victims and public safety risks than marijuana possession.

"We only incarcerated around a few thousand people in the 1970s but that number has increased sevenfold to over 48,000 people today," says Jackson Green. "So this is sort of one small step to getting us back towards focusing on streamlining and reducing our prison population. It's not just about this one drug. "

If passed, HB 218 would punish marijuana possession under 30 grams with a fine of $100, and would lower penalties for possession of over 30 grams but less than 500. Currently possession of 30 grams of marijuana is punishable by up to one year in prison. Marijuana possession already has been decriminalized in more than a dozen states and Washington D.C.

Jackson Green says Illinois has the fifth highest arrest rate for marijuana possession and those arrests disproportionally falls on minority communities.

"It does matter that these are the people that tend to be punished most for this crime and it affects your ability to later on go on and find employment, get admission to college, to apply for student loans," he says. "It can have a really big impact on your future career prospects."

Jackson Green says there are economic benefits, to locking up fewer people. Research from the Vera Institute found it cost more than $38,000 a year to imprison someone in Illinois and Jackson Green says the state's prison system is more than 150 percent of capacity.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - IL