By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel asked Illinois lawmakers on Tuesday to reform sentencing for low-level drug offenses, which would include ticketing rather than arresting people caught with small amounts of marijuana.
Emanuel said decriminalization of possession of less than eight grams of marijuana in the third-largest U.S. city since 2012 has kept non-violent offenders out of courts and jails and reduced paperwork, freeing up police officers to deal with violent crimes.
Emanuel and Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy were addressing a joint, bipartisan committee of state lawmakers that is holding preliminary hearings to overhaul the Illinois criminal code to address problems with prison overcrowding and mandatory minimum sentencing rules.
The mayor and police chief also recommended that possession of less than one gram of controlled substances such as cocaine be a misdemeanor rather than a felony.
The plea for softer drug laws is part of Emanuel and McCarthy's strategy to also push lawmakers to adopt harsher sentences for gun crimes. Chicago officials say illegal guns are a major factor in the city's high number of murders.
Emanuel said on Tuesday that the change statewide would save tax dollars that can be used on crime prevention programs.
"It doesn't make sense that one arrest for a very small amount of a controlled substance can lead to a lifetime of struggles, sending people in and out of prison and putting up barriers to getting a job or finding a place to live," he said at the hearing in Chicago.
Sixteen states plus the District of Columbia have decriminalized marijuana possession and two states have legalized retail sales, according to NORML, a group lobbying to legalize the drug.
"It's consistent with both Democratic and Republican efforts at the state levels to reduce prison populations," NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre said of Emanuel's proposal.
A May 2014 Roosevelt University study of the implementation of the marijuana decriminalization ordinance in Chicago was critical of the city police, finding they were still more likely to arrest people caught with small amounts of pot than ticket them.
McCarthy and Emanuel told lawmakers that the city has reduced arrests by 14 percent over the past three years, and that the number of burglaries - a crime often related to drug problems - and other crimes has also gone down in the same time period.
(Additional reporting by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Mohammad Zargham)