Members of a Milwaukee Common Council committee took up a proposal Thursday that could reduce the penalties for first-time offenses for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Advocates say reforms are needed to address disparities in how marijuana laws are enforced and their impact on offenders.
"When you look at the percentage of the population that is African-American versus the percentage of offenders who are actually being picked up by police in Milwaukee and prosecuted, there is a disparity there," says Public Policy Forum president Rob Henken.
The proposal stops well short of other recent reform laws which legalized possession and personal use of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, and medical marijuana use in other states.
The report found "continued inconsistencies between Milwaukee and its suburbs with regard to marijuana fines and enforcement, and a lack of clarity for citizens with regard to how existing laws are being enforced and who is doing the enforcing."
It also states that only a small number of individuals found guilty of a first-offense marijuana possession charge are sentenced to time in jail, and that only occurs in cases involving repeated failure to pay. "We looked at three years of data from 2012 up until March of 2015, and found that a very small number of individuals, only eight individuals, in that period of time had actually experienced time in jail as a result of their failure to pay their marijuana fine," says Henken.
In addition to looking at Milwaukee's rates of first, second and subsequent offenses, the report also examines cities around the country that have changed their marijuana laws and policies. These existing examples and results offer a range of options for city and state policymakers intent on making changes.
One key finding of the initial report is the monetary impact of changing the treatment of minor marijuana possession to municipal violations, compared to current criminal charges, would most likely have a great impact on reducing marijuana-related incarceration and prevent the over spending of justice system resources.
"We want to pin-point what are we spending and what would the potential be if we changed the ordinance in a variety of different ways to save money," says Henken.