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Lawmaker: Lower penalty for small drug crimes

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 1:54 p.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 9:25 p.m. CDT
Caption
(AP photo)
Illinois Rep.Michael Zalewski, D-Riverside, speaks to lawmakers during a House Judiciary Committee hearing at the Illinois State Capitol on Wednesday in Springfield.

SPRINGFIELD – Low-level marijuana possession should be decriminalized and punished with traffic ticket-like fines as part of a criminal justice “realignment” to reduce Illinois’ crowded prison system, a lawmaker from suburban Chicago said Wednesday.

Rep. Michael Zalewski, a Democrat from Riverside, told the House Judiciary Committee that legislation he plans to offer also would lessen the penalty for small amounts of heroin and cocaine possession to relieve packed prisons but also to unburden law enforcement labs from conducting drug testing for crimes that eventually might be dismissed.

The marijuana proposal, which a proponent suggested would carry a $250 fine on first offense, is among a series of sentence-lightening bills pushed by Zalewski, a former prosecutor. He reversed course after he was rebuffed last fall on an initiative to get tougher on people with illegal weapons. Critics said it would further strain the prisons.

“To make sure we’re not overburdening the system, it’s going to take these types of bills to do that,” Zalewski told the committee. “If it shocks your conscience, and you’re saying to yourself, ‘Wow, this is really what it would take?’ ... Yeah, it would. ... It’s going to take sort of a radical approach and it’s going to take some difficult votes by members of the General Assembly.”

The committee heard the proposals without taking a vote. Zalewski said he’s just begun talking to colleagues to gauge support and isn’t sure when he’ll ask for the panel’s approval.

There are 49,000 inmates in a correctional system designed for 32,000, a number based on single-celling inmates that officials say isn’t standard anywhere in the nation.

Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican, said state prisons hold about 4,500 more inmates than they should.

Zalewski’s other measures similarly take more lenient approaches to other crimes that account for large numbers of state prison inmates. They would require prison for retail theft only above $500, instead of $300 currently; and for other theft above $1,000, instead of $500. Another bill would require defendants in low-level drug cases to be released from jail while awaiting trial; and one would reserve tougher gun prosecution for those with violent pasts.

The “broader conversation” on crime and sentencing, as Zalewski calls it, began with his advocacy last year of legislation to stiffen gun-crime sentences. A legislative priority for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in his fight against city violence, Zalewski is still pushing it, although he didn’t bring it up Wednesday.

It ran into a buzz saw of opposition during the fall session from black legislators and others who said it would target young minority men and put them in prisons that have no room for them.

One of those who opposed the tougher gun sentences, but appeared supportive of Zalewski’s relief measures Wednesday, is John Maki, executive director of the nonpartisan prison watchdog the John Howard Association.

“We’re simply out of space. We’re in the unfortunate situation of spending too much on our prison system – about $1.3 billion – but given how many folks are in there, we don’t spend nearly enough,” Maki testified, predicting a court will step in and order population reduction.

Zalewski quibbled with describing his marijuana legislation as “decriminalization,” saying it’s “realigning the cannabis code.” He said experts say there are too many people in prison for possessing small amounts of drugs. He said in other instances, judges dismiss cases because of crowded dockets, wasting the time and efforts of law enforcement labs to test and measure the contraband.

Zalewski said details of the measure are still being worked out – it’s not been put into legislation yet. But Patrick Coughlin, deputy chief of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s narcotics bureau, said those caught with less than 30 grams of pot – about an ounce – would pay $250 for a first offense, instead of facing up to a year in jail.

Those caught with up to 3 grams of heroin, cocaine or other controlled substances, could spend three years in prison, instead of four.

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