An ordinance that lessens penalties for those in Evanston caught with 10 grams or less of marijuana received unanimous approval from aldermen at Monday night’s City Council meeting.
Originally proposed by Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, the ordinance replaces jail time with a ticket for those caught with 10 grams or less, thus keeping offenders out of the court system. Tisdahl has said she supported the measure as a way to keep a young person’s criminal record from hindering future employment.
"If we pass this ordinance, we would have more of our young people who could get jobs," Tisdahl said at a council subcommittee meeting earlier this month. "Police spend much more time arresting someone than they do ticketing them, so we would have police spending more time on the street dealing with more serious criminals.”
That view found support among those who addressed the council.
"We believe the ordinance would save the city money, raise money for the city, and it’s not an amnesty," said Andrea Lubelfeld, an attorney with the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy. "People who are fined would not be stuck with a criminal record, and they wouldn’t have to deal with going to court, getting a record and also expunging a record."
Others pointed out the brunt of the law fell on those without financial means to fight charges in court.
"I have a number of young people who work for me, and these young people cannot get jobs because they have a record,” said Hecky Powell, owner of Hecky’s Barbecue. “And the only place they can work usually is for me or some other minority company because we understand. Different than a lot of young people in this community, these folks cannot afford good lawyers. They have public defenders.”
Evanston's ordinance had provided that anyone found in possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana could be fined between $50 and $500. But state law dictates that possession of between 2.5 and 10 grams is a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and/or up to a $1,500 fine, and Evanston police had discretion on which penalty to pursue. But now, that discretion is removed, and the $50 to $500 fine range is maintained.
Evanston's law change places the city among a growing number of communities re-thinking the way they prosecute marijuana possession.
In October, Skokie officials voted to soften penalties for people 17 and younger by allowing those found with 2.5 grams or less of pot to be charged under village ordinance instead of state law.
Cook County passed an ordinance similar to Evanston’s in 2009 for unincorporated areas, and Chicago legislators are considering a similar ordinance.
Across the country, 14 states and numerous municipalities have moved to “de-penalize” marijuana possession, according to The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Some residents hoped the law change would spur a larger discussion on the city’s current drug enforcement policy, which they said tends to target minorities over White offenders.
"I think this ordinance will help to bring an end to criminalizing a certain segment of our young adult population, which I think has been happening, through a stop-and-frisk policy," said Evanston resident Dickelle Fonda.
"When we look at why young people are stopped and where they’re stopped, I think there’s some serious questions that need to be answered."
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