Could decriminalizing drug possession ease jail overcrowding?

By Alex Davis |

Published 02/28 2014 12:42PM

Updated 02/28 2014 12:47PM

ILLINOIS -- State lawmakers are trying to make more room in prisons. A new bill could help do that by making the punishment for some drug crimes less severe. WCIA-3's Alex Davis finds out why not everyone thinks it's a good idea.

It's time we turn over a new leaf. That's a message coming from a state lawmaker who wants the state to take a more lenient approach to prosecuting criminals in such cases as retail theft and low-level drug possession.

"There needs to be a re-balancing of the state's drug laws. We find a lot of individuals serving time for crimes like low-level offenses of possession of cannabis and other drugs that might be better off getting treatment."

Representative Michael Zalewski (D) is sponsoring several bills aimed at lightening sentences. The result, he thinks, would be fewer inmates taking up space and tax dollars in our state prisons.

Currently, there are some 49,000 inmates in Illinois' correctional system which is designed for 32,000.

"We're doing our best to realign the criminal code to ensure that it makes sense, that we're incarcerating violent offenders and getting the people with low-level drug addictions help."

But, from a law enforcement perspective, Zalewski is off the mark. One of his bills would decriminalize low-level marijuana possession and give first offenders a $250 find rather than a jail booking. That's something the Sangamon County Undersheriff says is misguided.

"It's a gateway drug. If you get used to using marijuana because you're not afraid of the penalty anymore, then it's going to lead to harder drugs."

He doesn't want society getting lax about drugs.

"Our fear is that people begin to associate drugs and it's okay to use it and it's not a big deal."

Saying, if the punishment no longer fits the crime, it might not be considered all that bad.

"You're beginning to rationalize the use of it. You're beginning to approve of it."

Representative Zalewski says Illinois' prisons are out of space and the cash-strapped state simply can't afford to continue spending money on our prison system.

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