Tuesday’s announcement from City Hall that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel plans to push state lawmakers to decriminalize marijuana possession and to reduce the penalty to a misdemeanor for those caught with possession of one gram or less of any controlled substance gave many political observers to see political motivation as the true cause for this latent concern.
Addressing a joint session of “the House-Senate Joint Criminal Reform Committee in Chicago, Emanuel encouraged lawmakers to challenge the ‘assumptions that are embedded in the criminal justice system.’ The mayor argued that reducing the penalties for minor drug possession would allow the city and state to focus their efforts on more violent crime.” as reported by the Chicago Tribune.
“It’s time, in my view, to free up our criminal justice system to address our real public safety challenges and build on the progress that has been made,” Emanuel said.
He is facing a tight race to stay in office, next February, and his support among the black wards has diminished since he shut down more than 50 schools in their neighborhoods, under the public guise of educational reform, but in actuality reflected a moribund city budget.
He also faces the possibility of facing off the ever popular Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, and a formidable opponent, who already has canvassers on city streets petitioning registered voters to put her on the ballot, as well as her now well-publicized efforts at raising money for a campaign chest.
Gun crimes have permeated parts of the nation’s third-largest city and have affected men, women and children, primarily in black neighborhoods and earlier efforts to have stricter gun laws faced criticism by some black leaders who “voiced concerns that increased incarceration instead of rehabilitation would ill-serve a community beset by high unemployment, high rates of incarceration and few jobs for recently released inmates.”
“Easing sentencing for less-violent crimes such as drug possession could help Emanuel win backing from state lawmakers who have been reluctant to a pass tougher sentencing measure for gun crimes,” said the Tribune.
Some have said, most notably Chicago Magazine that violent crime numbers are even higher than what has been reported and in a widely-read analysis, they found that 2013 reports that the drop of 56 percent, or 19 percent per year, was “akin to a chronically mediocre student all of a sudden earning straight As.”
Decriminalization is not a new issue, and in 2012 became law in the city of Chicago, where police were given discretion to use ticketing instead of arrest for pot possession, but in a city long racially segregated, and where use by whites is equal to that of blacks, the former received more tickets, while blacks faced more arrests.
It also has had the support of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, once considered a future rival for the next mayoral election, and who gave unqualified support for decriminalization, citing, in fact, the color discrepancy.
Earlier this year, State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) announced her sponsorship of a bill – HB 5708 – that would, in effect, “make possession of an ounce of marijuana a petty offense, punishable only by a fine of no more than $100.”
She also said in an emailed statement, “Marijuana decriminalization is important in many ways, primarily [to preserve] law enforcement resources and [eliminate] devastating criminal records. We’ve seen many states and municipalities take this approach with no negative consequences. This is a critically important step that will affect thousands in our state.”
Adding his support to Cassidy’s bill, Ed Yohnka, Director of Communications and Public Policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois commented in our phone interview, that without a change that “collateral damage in housing, financial aid and public housing,” is a quality of life issue and that the ACLU of Illinois supported decriminalization.
With Republican’s moving swiftly to take control over the national Senate in the mid-term elections, Democrats can gain even more liberal support, and gain a foothold, in what many are predicting to be a tight contest, with Emanuel’s support for this issue, and it may indeed prove the old saying that all politics are local.