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Statehouse Proposal Would Change Sentencing Requirements

Updated: Thursday, February 27 2014, 10:52 AM CST
An Illinois lawmaker wants to reform the state justice system by prioritizing who gets sent to jail. Some say it may end up nearly decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

This all started back in the fall, when Democratic Rep. Mike Zalewski proposed increasing mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes.

That effort was blocked by black caucus members in the House, who were concerned that too many people would end up behind bars.

The Department of Corrections estimated that could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars. So now, Zalewski is attempting to reform other sentencing laws to reduce prison overcrowding.

One proposal he's working on right now would make possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a petty offense--just like a traffic ticket.

"Everybody agrees: there are too many people sitting in state prisons for low-level drug offenses," Zalewski said. "Cannabis is one of those offenses. This is part of that broad conversation we need to have about realigning our priorities. And if it shocks the conscience, then yeah, that's the type of stuff we need to do to be able to make our system work better."

Zalewski cautions the marijuana idea is just a proposal. It hasn't been filed as a bill yet.

But the proposal was presented and discussed in the House Judiciary Committee today, along with a package of bills designed to potentially reduce the number of people locked up for small crimes. This includes raising the threshold for retail theft from $300 to $500, and requiring defendants to be released on their recognizance if caught with less than one gram of heroin or cocaine.

Zalewski still plans to push his mandatory minimums bill as well. That bill would increase possible penalties for certain crimes if a firearm is used. The bill was in response to several Chicago-area shootings where the perpetrators had criminal records, including gun crimes, but served short sentences before committing further crimes. Statehouse Proposal Would Change Sentencing Requirements

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