By Devin Rose
A proposal by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana is making its way to the City Council this week, but officials in Oak Park and River Forest already have a different approach for dealing with minor pot offenders.
In Chicago, the proposal calls for people 17 and under who have marijuana and do not have proper identification to be arrested, just as they are now. For people 17 and over, police have the option to give $100 to $500 tickets for possession of up to 15 grams.
Oak Park and River Forest instead do the opposite, ticketing younger people while arresting older. In both villages, people under 18 who are caught with less than 30 grams of marijuana receive tickets instead of getting arrested. They are referred to adjudication court instead of criminal court, where they appear before an administrative judge to find out if they will be fined or referred to community service.
Oak Park's village board gave final approval to the policy earlier this month. River Forest implemented the change to local adjudication for marijuana possession in March.
Oak Park Police Chief Rick Tanksley said the change allows for kids to be helped instead of punished by an offense that would have otherwise stayed on their record. Possession of the drug or related paraphernalia is a petty offense, not a misdemeanor, that would earn a fine from $30 to $300 the first time. In River Forest, the penalty is a fine of up to $750 or up to 40 hours of community service, or a combination of both.
"We're talking about individuals who might make one mistake," Tanksley said. "We don't want that record to follow them for the rest of their life."
He added offenders who keep showing up in adjudication court, or people who are found with marijuana divided into packages that appear to be for sale, could go to criminal court.
"I think it's just having a little more local control," said River Forest Police Chief Greg Weiss about the adjudication. He agreed that keeping criminal records clean was also important.
The ordinance changes were prompted by the parent group IMPACT, which has been working with police on the matter since 2010. But chair Kristine Raino-Ogden did not like to call the change "decriminalization" because that term sends the wrong message.
"It's still an offense, but we're changing the consequences," she said.
For a first-time offender, an arrest is "pretty severe," Raino-Ogden said. It has the potential to ruin chances for employment and acceptance to college, but the change provides a better way to take care of kids.
The Chicago City Council is set to vote on their measure this week.