Philadelphia could save more than $3,000,000 annually by not taking pot smokers in for mugshots
Minor marijuana possession arrests in Philadelphia are handled with mandatory custody; this is a different process than every other county in Pennsylvania costing the city millions of dollars. A disproportionate number of citizens (84%) arrested for marijuana possession in the city are black.
Research by PhillyNORML this year has uncovered these two disturbing trends that present serious challenges to the city. But in a sign of a pragmatic shift in attitudes, city officials have held an ongoing dialogue with reform advocates to proactively address these concerns.
In March of 2009 the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws performed their annual observation of the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Report data for the marijuana arrest numbers. At the same time, the city was beginning to face a heartbreaking economic plight that pitted police jobs against a lack of Public Safety Budget funds.
Data indicates that 4,716 adults were arrested in 2008 on the singular criminal misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession less than 30 grams. In Philadelphia such arrests are required to be custodial. For even a single cannabis joint this means an offender must be handcuffed, transported to a holding cell, photographed and perhaps make bail before release. In every other county in Pennsylvania there is no mandate for the custodial arrest of citizens found with small amounts of marijuana. Instead, summary violations are issued along with a date to appear in court.
Coming Change in Policy?
Following a steady dialogue with advocates, Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison convened a meeting of city officials on the issue. PhillyNORML spokesperson Chris Goldstein, supported by local attorney Brad Shuttleworth of Alva & Associates, met with Deputy Police Commissioner William Blackburn, Police Narcotics Division's Tom Snyder and Deputy District Attorney (Trial Division) John Delaney on May 20th 2009. Deputy Mayor Gillison and his staff along with other staffers from the police and DA's office attended the spirited, professional discussion.
PhillyNORML argued that the city's custodial procedure for pot possession is out of step with the rest of the Commonwealth and just taking minor marijuana offenders into custody may be costing the city more than $3,000,000 annually. The cost estimate factors in the administrative overhead of processing an arrest along with the police officers' time escorting the offender through the process. All other counties avoid such costs. PhillyNORML argued that by employing the more common sense marijuana arrest procedure the city's Public Safety Budget could see a multi-million dollar savings at a critical time. We see the procedure in place as expensive but, perhaps more important, it is overly harsh to these non-violent offenders.
Is the Racial Disparity Part of Current Policy?
The most troubling trend uncovered by PhillyNORML each year is the racial disparity of Philadelphia pot arrests. In 2008, of the 4,716 adults arrested for possession, 3,908 were black. Though not discussed at the May 20th meeting, the ethnic breakdown statistics were introduced in later conversations.
This trend of a racial disparity to cannabis prohibition enforcement is sadly replicated in urban areas across the country, but it is no less dramatic here in Philly. A criminal misdemeanor is a serious violation that could have lasting consequences for the offender. Often these minor cannabis possession offenses are the first time young, black men are introduced to the criminal justice system. While few will ever serve jail time for a first time minor marijuana offense, in Philly, they will see the inside of a holding cell and face a variety of state and social sanctions.
Some of the officials alluded to the strange dichotomy that exists, as most good beat cops do not think of people smoking pot as a serious issue. There is discretion already in use by police today. Marijuana smoking is ubiquitous in the urban landscape of America and, notably, is equally present in black and white cultures. It really is not feasible to enforce cannabis prohibition with strictly zero tolerance.
Still, the pot possession arrests in Philadelphia have been climbing at an increased pace since 2003, each year setting a successive new record. Because of the frequency of these arrests, it is also likely for a minor pot violation to be a second or concurrent offense. This only adds to the legal problems for the offender and increases their burden on the system.
Parallel to PhillyNORML's dialogue with city officials the group presented the ethnic bias statistics to the ACLU-PA. In a meeting with their lead litigator Mary Catherine Roper it was agreed that the statistics were significant.
Looking for Solutions
While there are some technical and procedural hurdles to overcome, all of the city officials seemed willing to address these expensive inconsistencies of policy and racial biases. Fourteen US states and dozens of municipalities have crafted unique solutions for their local marijuana prohibition enforcement. Philadelphia need not do anything more than follow the guidelines of other counties and cities in PA as a good first step.
The most glaring benefit to the city is a multi-million dollar savings in the Public Safety Budget utilizing a minor procedure change. The proposal also represents the most significant and realistic short-term budget savings proposed to the city by any non-profit group.
The racial disparity of cannabis prohibition enforcement is a problem that must be tackled by all cities. But Philadelphia, the city where our modern concepts of national liberty and freedom were created, would be a fitting place for this issue to be addressed.
PhillyNORML will continue our energetic discussions with city officials and the ACLU. The full ethnic breakdown of marijuana arrests in Philadelphia for 2008 and previous years is available on PhillyNORML's website www.phillynorml.org
by Chris Goldstein
November 17, 2009