Marijuana busts still costing millions of taxpayer dollars | Bleader

Friday, June 7, 2013

Marijuana busts still costing millions of taxpayer dollars

Posted By on 06.07.13 at 09:25 AM

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On Monday Illinois's financial health deteriorated a little more. The Fitch Ratings agency downgraded the state's bond rating, noting the ongoing "mismatch between spending and revenues"—that is, the state's inability to pay its bills. Moody's Investor Service soon followed suit.

Coincidentally, the ACLU made headlines that same day with a report on the astounding volume of marijuana busts nationwide. In 2010 police across the country made more than 784,000 arrests for pot possession—one every 37 seconds.

On first glance the issues may appear unrelated. But you don't have to be smoking anything to see that they're actually intertwined, for the simple reason that the crackdown on small-time marijuana users has become staggeringly expensive.

A little background. Two years ago my colleague Ben Joravsky and I began exploring the impact of local pot policies. We found that Chicago is divided by a grass gap: even though marijuana is used at similar rates across racial groups, African-Americans accounted for 78 percent of those arrested, 89 percent of those convicted, and 92 percent of those jailed for low-level possession.

The ACLU report confirmed that the gap extends nationwide, "in all regions of the country, in counties large and small, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, and with large and small Black populations." On average, blacks are four times as likely as whites to be busted for marijuana possession; in Illinois the black arrest rate is eight times the white rate, the third-widest gap in the nation.

To make matters worse, the arrests aren't accomplishing much. Around the country, marijuana use went up even as arrests soared over the last decade.

Plus, the courts aren't equipped to deal with the constant influx of cases. In Chicago, 90 percent are essentially thrown out.

Yet by our estimate the local arrests still cost taxpayers at least $78 million in court expenses and thousands of police hours a year—and it turns out that's just part of the picture. The ACLU found that in 2010 marijuana-possession arrests cost Illinois taxpayers $221 million.

Little has changed since then.

Last summer the Chicago City Council passed a law that allowed police to issue tickets instead of booking and locking up marijuana possessors. Supporters said it would reduce costs and keep low-level users out of the criminal justice system. "This is just a no-brainer," Alderman Danny Solis, the chief sponsor, said at the time.

But the law hasn't worked the way Solis hoped. Police have concluded that the ticketing process is a pain in the butt and doesn't send a strong enough message in tough neighborhoods. So they rarely use it, issuing just 17 citations a week citywide.

Meanwhile, the arrests keep coming. In the ten months since the law was passed, police have made more than 12,000 arrests for misdemeanor possession, 76 percent of them in black wards, according to police data.

That's an average of 281 arrests a week, or more than 40 a day. They've consumed 97,000 police hours and at least $30.2 million in court costs.

Police officials say they enforce the laws to protect public safety. Solis says he'd like some more answers. He promises to hold a hearing in the coming weeks to revisit the issue with police superintendent Garry McCarthy.

"It's time to sit down and have him give us an explanation of what's happening," Solis says. "Why are certain communities still targeted? Why aren't we ticketing? What's it costing us?"

Still, the alderman remains positive. "Undoubtedly it is a slow process, but I think we are taking steps forward," he says. "The attitudes of regular people are starting to change."

One thing is clear: there's no reason for city officials to wait for action from the federal or state government. President Obama showed little appetite for a change in policy even before becoming mired in his most recent round of political problems.

State legislators have approved a medical-marijuana bill that awaits the signature of Governor Pat Quinn. But they've ignored proposals that would reduce penalties and lower arrest rates for mere possession. With a ticking pension time bomb on their hands, they probably won't turn to pot anytime soon.

They may want to reconsider. Two-hundred million bucks a year won't fix all the budget problems in Illinois, but it's worth more than a few dime bags.

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