SPRINGFIELD — Signing a bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana would be, some legislators say, "low-hanging fruit" for Gov. Bruce Rauner, who is pushing for prison sentencing reform.
The legislation passed the Illinois House and Senate last month with some Republican support, though 50 GOP lawmakers opposed it, which they said would increase the acceptance of the drug and send the wrong message to children.
So far, the Republican governor has been mum on whether he will sign the bill, though spokeswoman Catherine Kelly has said Rauner "will carefully consider any legislation that crosses his desk."
Decriminalization advocates say signing the measure would send a signal that Rauner is serious about his goal of reducing the prison population by 25 percent in 10 years, though a task force study showed it may not the state's incarceration rates. Vetoing it may appeal to Republican voters he needs to support his pro-business legislative agenda, though Rauner has never cast himself as a social conservative.
"I don't think it interferes with his beliefs at all," said Mike McKeon, who has polled voters on the decriminalization bill. He added that signing it into law wouldn't alienate Rauner's core.
Four states have legalized marijuana, and more than a dozen have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana statewide, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates for marijuana law reform. In Illinois alone, about 100 communities, including Chicago, give police latitude to issue tickets instead of arresting those with small amounts. And earlier this year, the Cook County state's attorney's office said it'll stop prosecuting cases involving misdemeanor level amounts of marijuana.
The legislation would fine those caught with up to 15 grams between $55 and $125, and records of the ticket would be expunged after six months.
Measure sponsor Rep. Kelly Cassidy says the bill would eliminate racial disparity in how local police departments treat low-level pot possession. Rauner seemed "receptive" to it when it was introduced, she has said, and thought it fits with his goal of reducing the prison population.
An analysis of the bill released by Rauner's prison and sentencing reform task force showed it wouldn't have a significant impact on reducing the overcrowding in Illinois' prisons because of the low number of people incarcerated for amounts of marijuana as small as the bill would address. About a quarter of a percent of the state's prison population — 118 out of about 48,000 — were convicted of any type of marijuana possession, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Sen. Kwame Raoul, a member of the task force, said the measure will help end the disparate treatment blacks have faced when discretion on the issue is given to police officers. A 2014 study from Roosevelt University found black people in Illinois were seven times more likely than whites to be arrested on possession charges instead of being ticketed.
The Chicago Democrat and other members of the Illinois Black Caucus believe Rauner is likely to sign the measure. Rauner himself told task force members in March it was time to "think anew" on reform.
"He's expressed to me personally the desire to be aggressive about criminal justice reform," Raoul said. "Given that, this one is low-hanging fruit."
Marijuana advocacy groups believe the bill also is a step toward decriminalizing or, at least, increasing acceptance of the drug — a view shared by opponents both in and outside of the General Assembly.
"You may be trying to enforce it in another way but this is decriminalization of what now is a Class A misdemeanor," Sen. Dale Righter, a Republican from Mattoon, said during a committee meeting in May.
Matt Jones, associate director of the Illinois Office of the State's Attorney Appellate Prosecutor, said opposing decriminalization sends a mixed message if the state wants to reduce the prison population.
"We need to move in a direction that radically changes the way we deal with low-level, non-violent offenders," Jones said.
The bill is HB218.