February 19, 2015

A proposed ordinance that would all but eliminate fines for possessing a small amount of marijuana in Milwaukee sparked a debate Thursday about racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Study after study has shown that marijuana use among all ethnic groups is the same, Molly Collins, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, told members of the Common Council's Safety Committee.

"In Milwaukee County," she testified, "African-American people are 4.9 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession and in the city of Milwaukee, it's about 5.48 times more likely."

"A criminal record for criminal possession creates a lifetime of collateral damage," she said.

The ordinance, proposed by Aldermen Nik Kovac, Ashanti Hamilton and Bob Bauman, would reduce the maximum forfeiture for possession of 25 grams of marijuana or less from $500 to $5.

The forfeiture for smoking marijuana in public would remain the same: between $250 and $500. After hearing well over an hour of testimony, the committee voted to delay action on the measure.

A state law enacted last year gives local governments more authority to adopt laws prohibiting the possession of marijuana or its synthetics. Before the new law, local ordinances could only prohibit possession of a small amount of marijuana — 25 grams or less. Nor could local governments prosecute second offenses.

While the purpose of the state law was to give local governments the opportunity to ramp up marijuana citations, the proposed ordinance for Milwaukee seeks to decriminalize minor drug possession.

"We have pretty much criminalized where you live and what you look like," Hamilton said.

Rather than strengthen neighborhoods, current laws "destabilize our community," he said.

Ald. Robert Puente, a committee member, wanted to know how much revenue the citations generated.

"With things that create criminal records and prevent people from getting jobs, I don't think revenue should even be on our minds," Kovac replied.

Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said he supports reducing the fines for minor possession, but not to the degree proposed to the committee.

"So low a forfeiture sends the wrong signal," he said.

And he urged the committee to view the issue in a more nuanced way.

"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 very neighborhoods in which a majority of drug citations are issued, he said.

"I don't know who we think we are helping today, but I offer that the neighborhoods that are afflicted by violence know what's in their neighborhoods' interests," he said.


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