Lancaster city police are making use of a new city ordinance to go a little easier on marijuana users, new data shows.
More than two-thirds of all arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana since January resulted in low-level citations instead of more serious state criminal charges — discretion allowed for by the ordinance, which council passed in September.
"We're glad to see it's being used," said City Councilman Ismail Smith-Wade-El, a strong proponent of the legislation.
Council enacted it in hopes of preventing the long-term harm to people’s lives that can result from convictions under state law.
The ordinance allows police to treat possession of small amounts of marijuana or paraphernalia as a summary offense, similar to a traffic ticket. Pennsylvania law treats the offense as a misdemeanor.
City police made 52 arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana from January through June, according to data provided by Chief Jarrad Berkihiser. They filed summary offenses in 36 of those cases, and misdemeanor charges in the 16 others.
Police filed misdemeanor charges when there were factors other than the marijuana possession in play, Berkihiser said — for example, officers needed to use force, or suspects had outstanding warrants or a previous criminal record.
Among individuals issued summary citations, nine were white, 13 were black and 14 were Hispanic. They ranged in age from 13 to 53.
The other 16 people, or 31%, were charged under the Pennsylvania law, the chief said. Seven were white, five were black and four were Hispanic, and their ages ranged from 16 to 64.
Council members said last year they would monitor the ordinance's use to make sure it was being applied fairly. Smith-Wade-El said the data didn't raise any red flags for him, though there isn't enough of it yet to draw any firm conclusions.
Another update is due early next year. Smith-Wade-El said he'll ask for a breakdown by location to be added to that report.
Unlike summary offenses, misdemeanor convictions can turn up on background checks indefinitely, providing grounds for rejection of an individual’s applications for jobs, housing and higher education.
U.S. poverty “would have dropped by 20 percent over the past several decades if not for the barriers caused by incarceration and criminal records,” according to mycleanslatepa.com, a website created by Community Legal Services in partnership with the Pennsylvania Bar Association.
Pennsylvania recently began to seal millions of criminal records automatically under its new Clean Slate law. Nonviolent misdemeanors such as marijuana infractions are eligible, but a person must go 10 years without another conviction for sealing to occur.