One of the things new Philadelphia DA Seth Williams did upon assuming office last year was change the way that Philadelphia was going to deal with marijuana offenses. While the maximum penalty for possession under state law is 30 days in jail and a $500 fine for up to 30 grams, 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. Offenders would still be cuffed, detained, and fingerprinted, but the crime would be treated more like public drunkenness than a serious offense.
His predecessor, "Tough Cookie" Lynne Abraham, deemed this madness:
Former District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham ripped into her successor's decision to treat some marijuana-possession cases more leniently, saying Monday that "local gangs and marijuana growers everywhere are positively overjoyed" at Seth Williams' new policy.
In a caustic statement made public at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing, Abraham also said, " 'Welcome to Philadelphia, Light Up a Joint' may just be our new slogan."
On Philly.com today, Ben Waxman reports on the actual results
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....
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."
But something significant has changed:
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.
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....
Let's not forget that the change also frees prosecutors to focus on more important cases...
Being smart on crime doesn't require being tough on every crime. It's a nice start, and fresh change, from Williams.