By Crocker Stephenson
For the second time this year, Milwaukee Common Council members will consider an ordinance that would burn off most of the municipal fine for possessing a small amount of marijuana.
This time, Ald. Nik Kovac is taking the idea straight to the full council on Tuesday — avoiding the Safety Committee, where it got bogged down earlier this year by skeptical aldermen.
Kovac thinks he's got the votes.
"The idea is to make the fine so low that it wouldn't be worth writing the ticket," Kovac said.
The measure, sponsored by Kovac, Ashanti Hamilton, Willie Wade, Russell Stamper and Bob Bauman, would shrink the maximum fine for possession of 25 grams — about a sandwich bag of marijuana — from $500 to $50.
A state law enacted last year gives local governments more authority to craft laws on the possession of marijuana or its synthetics.
Under the Common Council proposal, the forfeiture for smoking marijuana in public would remain the same: $250 to $500.
Repeat offenders could be charged by the Milwaukee County district attorney's office with felony possession and tried in state court.
Kovac and other supporters frame the issue not around the drug, but around the racial disparities in marijuana arrests and jailings.
Marijuana use among all ethnic groups is the same, Molly Collins, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, said Monday.
But in Milwaukee County, African-Americans are 4.9 times more likely to be arrested for possession, she said. In the city, they are 5.48 times more likely to be arrested.
"It's a social justice issue," she said.
Not only are African-Americans more likely to be arrested, they are more likely to be poor and therefore less able to pay large fines — and therefore more likely to be jailed.
"Incarcerating poor people who cannot afford to pay high fines creates serious harm," Christopher Ahmuty, the state ACLU's executive director, wrote Common Council members in support of the ordinance.
"These people are in jeopardy of losing employment or schooling," he said.
A new report by the Milwaukee-based Justice Initiatives Institute examined the impact of unpaid municipal fines resulting in jail time.
Of 3,388 marijuana cases between 2008 and 2013 that resulted in jail time, 84% involved African-Americans, 8% Hispanics and 7% white.
The number of days spent in jail totaled 57,526, the report says.
Only $179,000 — or 15% — of a total judgment amount of $1.2 million in marijuana cases was paid.
"It's one thing if you have a credit card, another if you are chronically unemployed," said Marilyn Walczak, the initiative's project coordinator.
In February, Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said he thought a previous proposal, which had lowered the fine to $5, went too far.
"While we are certainly appropriately concerned with the potential for disproportionate incarceration, we are living in a world of disproportionate victimization, disproportionate calls for service, disproportionate fear, disproportionate disorder," he said.
The majority of calls complaining about drug use come from the neighborhoods in which a majority of drug citations are issued, he said.