The House Judiciary Criminal committee passed a bill on Tuesday reducing penalties for possession of small amounts of controlled substances in an effort to better address addiction as a public health problem.
House Bill 3447, sponsored by state Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, passed the committee by a 12-7 vote after proponents of the bill argued addiction problems cannot be solved by sending someone to jail. Opponents raised concerns about how those seeking addiction treatment would access help, which the bill does not address.
The bill would make possession of all controlled substances below certain amounts for each type of substance a Class A misdemeanor instead of a felony. Multiple misdemeanor charges for possession will also not result in future stiffer penalties.
Possession of heroin less than three grams, fentanyl less than three grams, and less than five grams of cocaine are some of the drug amounts that would result in lower penalties.
Jim Kaitschuk from the Illinois Sheriffs Association said he was concerned about some of these amounts on certain drugs like fentanyl. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine and often used for treating severe pain. It becomes deadly when used recreationally. In many cases when illegally manufactured fentanyl is used, tiny amounts less than three grams can be deadly.
Supporters argued the dependence on the criminal justice system was creating the problems addressing addiction.
“Imprisoning a bunch of people because of possession is not the way to go,” Ammons said.
Ammons has some support from law enforcement on the issue as well.
"Incarceration will never help people recover from addition," said Lake County Sheriff John Idleburg.
Supporters of the bill argued the criminal justice system has already tried sending people to prison to try to discourage drug possession, but that has not gotten people help.
Colette Payne from the Women’s Justice Institute said she first went to prison for drug possession at age 14 and it did not help her get help for her addiction problem. She went in and out of prison, eventually dropping out of school when she began using harder drugs like heroin.
"I was taken away by another system. A system that exasperated my experience with poverty and lead me down an even darker hole," Payne said. "Possession was not the root cause of my problems."
Ammons said it’s difficult to get help for addiction because lawmakers have been too focused on funding incarceration and not drug treatment options.
Opponents of the bill also agreed drug addiction needed to be treated more like a public health crisis.
“Jails shouldn’t be a safety net. Unfortunately, that’s what they’ve become. That is not by our design in law enforcement, but the reality is the first time we get to see someone for treatment is within the jail," said Kaitschuk.
However, Kaitschuk said more needed to be done to address accessing public health resources before lowering penalties on drugs.
“We have to expand treatment options and make sure there are adequate treatment options available," said state Rep. Patrick Windhorst, R-Metropolis. "My concern is by taking this from a felony to a misdemeanor is we’re going to remove the incentive individuals have to get the treatment they need."
Windhorst said it was his experience as a prosecutor that felony charges helped convince people to seek help.
The committee chairman, state Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago, argued that approach is what failed during the war on drugs and cited action to lower penalties for small amounts of drug possession by former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump as evidence Ammons’ initiative can have bipartisan support.
Lawmakers previously debated lowering penalties for possessing controlled substances during the January ‘lame duck’ session, but it did not make any progress. It will now go to the House floor for a vote.
“I have a bad feeling this is really going to fail because there are no public health policies in place before this action," said state Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna.
Contact Ben Szalinski at firstname.lastname@example.org
via The State Journal-Register
March 23, 2021 at 03:27PM