Pot Tickets

What can data from criminal justice agencies tell us about how the Chicago / Cook County criminal justice system enforces state laws regarding this gateway drug, pot.  I pretty sure that if we were able to access the data in question, it could tell us everything we need to know.  The problem is that data is so restricted that it is impossible to learn what it has to tell Marijuana & Budsus.  Mick Dumke and Ben Javorsky in the Chicago Reader have been doing their best to inform us with the little data they are able to pry open from the system.  Let’s take a look at the ordinance that just recently passed by the City Council’s Public Safety Committee and see if it is going to do what is promised, decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana for all of Chicago’s residents.

Nobody under 17 can be ticketed:

This could either be a very big deal or none at all.  My hunch is that it is going to be a bigger deal than people think it is going to be.  Unless I have missed something, I don’t think we have seen an age breakdown of the arrests by the Chicago Police Department (CPD).  This is a very important piece of data because it could be that most of the arrests are of kids under 17.  If this is the case then this panacea of drug decriminalization may only apply to a small minority of people that are now being arrested.  If this is true, then this decriminalization seems to be nothing more than propaganda rather than substantive change.

Discretion to arrest or ticket for pot:

The hobgoblin of policing is the ability of police officers to decide whom to arrest, or ticket, and whom to allow to go on their way without any kind of sanction.  While I applaud the work of advocates who have toiled behind the scenes to get us to where we are, the reality is that the ability of officers to invoke either sanction is troubling.  Why?  Because of the racial divides that still exist in this city and the propensity of police officers to make race based decisions.   Even when officers do not make decisions based on race, there is going to be a feeling in communities of color that the offices are in fact making a decision strictly based on race.   This law may just backfire on the police and serve to widen the gap between minority communities and the CPD as their use of discretion, rightly or wrongly, is interpreted as being used to let whites off with tickets while black and brown people get arrested.

New Cannabis Ordinance – Below you can download a copy of the ordinance that passed the Public Safety Committee on Thursday June 21st.


I think advocates should also be worried about the level of fines that are included in this ordinance.  I certainly hope that we don’t sentence people to debtors prison while trying to decriminalize small amounts of pot possession.  I am not sure how a young urban male (which we all know is the target for police searchers seeking pot possession) is going to be able to afford the $250 fine associated with the initial arrest let alone the $500 associated with the second violation in 30 days.  What happens when the individual cannot pay the fine?  Are they just ordered to make payments and then burdened with interest?   Also, do offenders who are ordered to do community service have to pay for it, if so, what happens when they cannot do so?  With these fine levels we just might see people opting to be arrested and deal with the burden rather than have to suffer the significant financial burdens associated with the fines.

Maybe because this is Chicago, or maybe because of all the horror stories I have heard about jurisdictions burdening their citizens with outrageous fees associated with the decriminalization of drugs that I am so worried about the consequences of this legislation.  It certainly seems like the Alderman have written a law that hardly affects the rich north siders who can easily afford to pay the fines but significantly punishes the south and west siders of our city who cannot.  Also, there is the discretion issue that may make this all moot because the tickets may be the tool used on the north side but not on the south and west sides.

DataJudging the new legislation

To judge how this new option is working versus the old way of “arrest only,” it is imperative that we have access to the right data sets that will allow us to do the analysis in a valid & reliable manner.  The major problem is that we are currently without the access we need to the data sets to judge the arrest-only practices of the Chicago Police Department.  Simply put we need access to case level data from both the police and prosecutors to be able to judge the current practices versus the new practices.  Absent this access, we are going to have to rely on press releases from the agencies about how the practices are working.  That is not in anyone’s best interests.

Some facts worth considering on the disparities that currently exist in the arrest only practices of the CPD.  Now, I am not certain at all that this disparity will diminish because of this new ordinance.  I certainly hope it does but I fail to see language that will affect it.

Facts from Dumke & Joravsky’s reporting in the Chicago Reader in an article titled “The Grass Gap

“Chicago police made tens of thousands of arrests in 2009 and 2010 for marijuana possession, including 47,400 in which that misdemeanor was the most serious charge. So how egregious are the racial discrepancies?

  • Of those arrested, 78 percent were black, 17 percent were Hispanic, and 5 percent were white.
  • In those years 4,255 people pleaded or were found guilty of low-level marijuana possession after being arrested in Chicago: 89 percent were black, 9 percent were Hispanic, and 2 percent were white.
  • The racial gap was slightly smaller for all of Cook County, which is less diverse than the city: countywide 76 percent of the 6,303 who were convicted or pleaded guilty were black, 10 percent were Hispanic, and 14 percent were white.
  • Blacks accounted for most of the marijuana convictions and guilty pleas out of every police district in Chicago except three on the northwest side: Shakespeare (which is in Logan Square and West Town), Albany Park, and Jefferson Park. Hispanics ranked first in each of these areas.
  • After Chicago, the most pot convictions and guilty pleas came out of west suburban Maywood, followed by Bellwood (west), Evanston (north), Cicero (west), and Harvey (south).
  • The street value of the pot found on the convicted offenders, according to our sample of case files, was anywhere from $2 to $170. The average was $55.”

Without case level data access we will not know if the ticketing practices of the CPD close this gap or make it even worse.

Tracy has nearly two decades of experience researching and working within criminal justice systems. When Tracy began pursuing a career dedicate to system reform, he found that no single organization existed to promote evidence-based discussions among law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. Recognizing that citizens in Chicago deserved the right to demand transparency in their criminal justice system, Siska established the Chicago Justice Project. He received his Master of Arts degree in Criminal Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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