African-American aldermen critique fines in new pot ordinance before sending it to full council vote

African-American aldermen critique fines in new pot ordinance before sending it to full council vote
Creative Commons photo by Torben Bjørn Hansen.

A handful of African American alderman spoke out today against what they called extremely high fines in a proposal that would swap arrests and possible jail time for citations in cases of low-level marijuana offenses.

The city's public safety committee advanced the ordinance by a vote of 13-1.
And shortly after some spirited testimony and a little grandstanding, all of those critics ended up voting for 25th Ward Ald. Danny Solis' ordinance--which, by the way, Mayor Rahm Emanuel supports.

During the public safety committee's hearing, member Anthony Beale, alderman of the largely black far South Side 9th Ward, spoke out against the fines the city is proposing to charge adult marijuana offenders caught with 15 grams of pot or less: $250-$500.

He argued that many offenders who will be issued the tickets will be low-income people of color who do not have the money to pay up to $500 in fines.

"Out of this 18,298 that we're arresting [last year's marijuana arrests] ... out of that number, I guarantee that the majority of those people are poor members of our communities that cannot afford $250 or $500 fines," Beale Said. "That's hurting poor people."

Beale proposed a "tiered" system in which offenders would be charged $50-$100 for the first fine, and more for subsequent offenses.

"How are we going to deal with some of the issues that Alderman Beale brought up? We're creating a whole set of other problems for people who do not have the resources," said 28th Ward Ald. Jason Ervin, whose West Side ward has one of the highest poverty rates in the city.

Ervin, who spoke before the committee but is not a member so he couldn't vote on the proposal, also said he was not convinced that writing tickets for marijuana would deter the drug market in his ward, which he called "dope central."

To that point, police Superintendent Garry McCarthy--who backs the ordinance--pointed out that Ervin's ward had the highest number of marijuana arrests last year. Writing tickets instead of making arrests for low-level marijuana offenses means that officers will not have to spend up to eight hours--an entire work day, which is how long McCarthy said two partners collectively spend on individual marijuana arrests--processing a pot arrestee, the superintendent said. This means more cops will be on the street looking out for more serious crime.

Third Ward Ald. Pat Dowell, who represents another mostly black community in Bronzeville, also expressed some skepticism before she casted her "Aye" vote.

She said the fines sounded like the ordinance was an "attempt to raise dollars on the backs of poor people who are going to be impacted by this."

Dowell also hinted that the committee should table Solis' ordinance--which has been lingering since last November--until more of the council members' concerns were addressed.

"The mayor took nine months to make his decision, I feel like we really need more time," Dowell said.

Hinting at racial disparities when it comes to the sky-high number of black and Latino residents arrested and prosecuted for pot in Chicago and Cook County, both Ervin and his colleague in the neighboring ward, 27th Ward Ald. Walter Burnett, also said that the police department needs to make sure that it issues tickets fairly.

"I just hope that ... it does not continue to be disproportionate, that only African Americans and Hispanics are the ones who get fined. Because I go to Pitchfork, I go to Lollapalooza ... and everybody's smoking pot all over the place. You can smell it three, four blocks away," Burnett said. "So we need to ticket some of these out of town people who come to our city and smoke, not just the young urban kids."

The ordinance that made it out of committee today basically states that people 18 and over caught with 15 grams or less will be fined $250-$500.

People who are under 17, don't have an ID, are in a school or a park, or have packaged marijuana with the intent to sell it are all subject to arrest, even if they have 15 grams or less.

The ordinance also gives city council members the power to mandate drug education programs for those fined.

The original proposal was drafted last year, after it was revealed that the great majority of those arrested and prosecuted for marijuana in Chicago and Cook County are young people of color.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has long pushed for marijuana reform as a way to save the cash-strapped county money and to keep young minorities out of the criminal justice system.

Almost all of the black alderman who spoke out against the fines agreed that marijuana reform is necessary, but none of them got the committee to lower the fines.

Regardless of their expressed concerns, they all supported the measure and it will go before the full city council for a vote next Wednesday.

© Community Renewal Society 2012

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