Saturday, August 1, 2015

Small change in Philadelphia's drug prosecution policy adds up to big bucks

"Welcome to Philadelphia - light up a joint."

Small change in Philadelphia's drug prosecution policy adds up to big bucks

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Seth Williams
Seth Williams

"Welcome to Philadelphia - light up a joint."

That was ex-D.A. Lynne Abraham's suggestion for a new city slogan after her successor, Seth Williams, announced plans to be more lenient when prosecuting people caught with small amounts of marijuana.

The new policy has been in effect for more than half a year. Have you seen more stoners stumbling around Philly, joints in hand? Have you even noticed . . . or seen especially long lines at Taco Bell?

The police haven't, either.

Lt. Ray Evers, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Police Department, said that there's been a negligible difference in marijuana-related crime since the new policy began June 8. Nor has there been any noticeable increase in public use of the drug.

There has been a different kind of important change: The amount of taxpayer money being spent punishing very-small-time criminals. The district attorney's office estimates that the new policy saved $1 million in its first six months, and will save $2 million in its first year.

The new approach provides a case study of how we should expand our thinking about finding savings in the city budget. The standard options for dealing with a deficit are raising taxes or cutting services.

But the fiscal windfall from the change in sentencing guidelines is a reminder that there are other ways to reduce costs through smart policies.

After all, we're seeing big savings for what is really just a procedural tweak. Under Pennsylvania law, the maximum penalty for possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana is 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Instead of always seeking the maximum punishment, Williams instructed his charging unit to treat most cases as "summary offenses," which carry a $200 fine, no jail time, and an expunged record after the offender attends a substance-abuse class.

Evers said this doesn't mean that marijuana has been decriminalized. The police haven't changed anything about their approach to enforcement in response to the new guidelines.

"The end result may be a citation or community service," Evers said, but offenders "are still going to spend some quality time with the police. They are still going to be locked up."

So why is it so much cheaper to go easier on pot smokers?

According to the D.A.'s office, 2,318 cases were handled as summary offenses between June 8 and Dec. 8. Deputy District Attorney Sarah Hart, head of the performance and policy division, came up with the $1 million savings estimate by calculating what it would have cost to prosecute those cases as misdemeanors.

For example, a harsher punishment means that the police-department crime lab is required to conduct a chemical analysis - which costs $180 - to determine whether the substance is really marijuana.

The savings only grow from there. A person charged with a misdemeanor has the right to an attorney, and a court-appointed lawyer will get $350 a case out of the court budget. Hart says that even if only 10 percent of the defendants in marijuana- possession cases between June 8 and Dec. 8 had needed court-appointed attorneys - a very conservative estimate - it would have cost taxpayers an additional $160,000 annually.

But the biggest savings by far come from not requiring police officers to appear in court to testify.

When you bring officers to court, you have to pay at least their salary, Hart said. If they're working overtime, that's at least another four hours' pay, and if the hearing is on short notice, it's double overtime.

"You're talking about 4,000 cases per year, and it's a minimum of one officer per case - that's conservatively a $1 million saving every year," Hart says.

Let's not forget that the change also frees prosecutors to focus on more important cases, reduces the workload of judges and helps reduce the prison population.

Abraham remains unimpressed - at least when it comes to this marijuana policy. She said last week that any savings were outweighed by the need to appear tough on crime.

"I think the message this program sends, it's an invitation to break the law," Abraham said. "A summary offense is a citation, it's not really an arrest."

But if the policy is an invitation to break the law, not many are accepting it - remember, we've seen no change in behavior. Looking tough on crime is only important if it prevents more crime.

It's worth it to ask whether we want to pay the price of looking tough on crime.

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Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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