- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 23, 2014

CHICAGO (AP) - Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel asked state legislators Tuesday to make possession of less than 1 gram of any controlled substance a misdemeanor and possession of less than 15 grams of marijuana a ticketable offense. He said the city has shown it is possible to reduce penalties for small amounts of drugs and lower crime at the same time.

But members of a committee the mayor and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy spoke to expressed concern that reducing the penalties might create problems around the state, starting with a possibility that local costs could rise if people who might otherwise have gone to state prison for a felony conviction are instead convicted of misdemeanors and sentenced to county jail.

Emanuel and McCarthy cited what they say are the benefits the city has seen since 2012 when the City Council - at the mayor’s urging - passed an ordinance allowing police to ticket people found with small amounts of marijuana instead of arresting them.

They said, for example, that officers are able to dispatch small possession cases quicker now, meaning they spend more time on the street fighting crime and less time doing paperwork. And the results, Emanuel said, could offer a template for the rest of the state.

“I wouldn’t want to say Chicago is a pilot test, but by doing what we’ve done … you’ve seen a reduction in (arrests) and you’ve also seen a reduction in crimes associated with narcotics” such as burglary, he told the House-Senate Joint Criminal Reform Committee that was created to examine issues such as overcrowding in the state’s prisons and jails and how to reduce racial disparities in sentencing.

He also said that by reforming sentencing laws for low-level drug offenses, state lawmakers would make it easier for those who have been arrested to find jobs and turn their lives around - something that is far tougher with a felony conviction than it is with a misdemeanor conviction.

Lawmakers expressed skepticism on a number of fronts. Besides the possibility that the cost of running their jails would rise if more people are sent there instead of prison, one suburban Chicago lawmaker worried about the ramifications of turning possession of heroin into a misdemeanor in communities where the number of heroin overdoses has climbed dramatically.

“My concern is that if you make possession of heroin a misdemeanor that it makes it easier for drug dealers to sell in smaller amounts,” said Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican.

Lawmakers said the chance that the proposal by Emanuel, who is running for re-election, will become law is exceedingly slim, unless it was part of larger bill that also included tough-on-crime provisions.

“You’re trying to build a package that will appeal to everyone,” said Rep. Michael Zalewski, a Riverside Democrat. “It’s the only way this stuff is going to pass.”

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