It was July 26 in the Cook County misdemeanor court at Harrison and Kedzie, but it could have been any day. The docket's always heavy with marijuana cases.
Fourteen of the 78 cases that morning—nearly one of every five—involved cannabis, amounting to a steady parade of young black men coming before the judge to answer accusations about possessing less than an ounce of pot.
As we reported last month, there's a grass gap in Chicago: the ratio of black to white arrests for marijuana possession is 15 to 1. Yet studies—and common sense—will tell you that usage rates for blacks and whites are about the same.
Not only does the racial disparity get even more pronounced in the prosecution and sentencing process—blacks account for 89 percent of all convictions and guilty pleas for pot possession in Chicago—but punishment varies widely. For the last few weeks we've been visiting courthouses around the city, reviewing case files, and talking with judges, lawyers, and defendants. What we've found, in addition to the racial divide, is that the overflow of cases has led to an erratic enforcement of the law. Con men know how to slide through the system, and armed dealers sometimes face lesser penalties than people randomly caught on the street with a few bucks' worth of weed.
The cost of prosecuting these cases and incarcerating defendants has sparked a debate between Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle, who favors decriminalization, and Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy, who vows to continue enforcement. (See sidebar.)
In addition, it's not clear what pot laws and prosecutions are accomplishing. When we asked Cook County state's attorney Anita Alvarez, she said candidly, "I'm struggling with that question. It's the law, and we have to follow the law." Maureen Biggane, a spokeswoman for McCarthy, didn't respond directly, saying in a written statement that police officers are working "to ensure criminal activity and quality of life issues are effectively addressed."
The answer isn't ambiguous to defense attorney Chelsey Robinson. "The only thing it actually does is build up the record of these kids who are caught," said Robinson, who provides legal services in Chicago's misdemeanor courts through the Cook County Bar Association. "It's not deterring anybody and it's wasting the courts' time and resources."
As every defense lawyer knows, most of the busts don't proceed very far in the court system—around 90 percent are essentially tossed out, typically when the arresting officers don't show up in court. But poor or unlucky offenders can end up with jail time. It's common to see sheriff's deputies lead arrestees who failed to post bond out of the lockup and into the courtroom, where they plead guilty in return for a sentence of time served—just to get out of the system ASAP. Once again, almost all of them are black.
Here are the stories of three people whose experiences illustrate the often quirky and capricious way that marijuana laws are enforced in Chicago (which is why we're withholding their last names).