Chicago Ponders Tickets Rather Than Jail Time for Possessing Pot

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If the plan passes the city can spend less money on incarceration and focus police resources on more serious crimes

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In Chicago, as in many cities, getting caught with marijuana can land you in jail, but that may change if Alderman Daniel Solis gets his way next week. "If the plan passes, people caught in Chicago with 10 grams or less of marijuana would get a $200 ticket and up to 10 hours of community service, instead of facing a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,500 fine," The Chicago Tribune reports. "Chicago police get tied up making about 23,000 arrests each year for marijuana possession, said Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey, D-Chicago, who appeared Thursday at a news conference with Solis and other aldermen."

So say someone gets arrested with 8 grams of pot. Here are the options. Have a police officer spend hours arresting, processing, and helping to convict said person. Pay the salary of a court appointed attorney, a judge, a bailiff and a court reporter to maybe convict him. Put the offender in a Cook County jail, where the cost of incarceration for a months long stint for maybe $10,000. Release him once he's made a large friend network among the criminal element. 

Alternatively, write him a $200 ticket and force him to do community service, even as he continues to work or at least has a resume clean enough to make future employment a possibility.

This is a no-brainer, and there are more arguments still in its favor:

Ald. Walter Burnett, 27th, said people arrested for marijuana possession are disproportionately minorities, who now end up with arrests on their criminal records even though the vast majority of the cases are eventually dismissed.

"I had the opportunity to go to Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, and I think I got contact high being at all those events," Burnett said. "Police there, everything. It wasn't predominantly African-American, and guess what? No one got arrested at those events. If that was an African-American event, the jails would probably be filled up. I think it's almost a discrimination issue."

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has complained that the Cook County Jail and courts are jammed with petty marijuana offenders. She released a statement Thursday saying "taxpayers deserve our resources to be spent more productively -- on long-term infrastructure projects and on alternative diversion programs for our youth population who circulate through the criminal justice system."

This is how prohibition ends: city by city, as early adopters see that decriminalization is a boon rather than a catastrophe, and other jurisdictions follow suit. Until then, places like Chicago, where the murder rate is higher than New York and Los Angeles, will keep investing more resources on arresting and incarcerating marijuana users than on stopping far more serious criminal acts. 

Image credit: Flickr user cj&erson

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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