Kenney holds back for retooling laws to ease pot arrests

Posted: March 27, 2014

City Councilman James F. Kenney's call to stop jailing people in Philadelphia for marijuana possession seemed to be speeding toward approval earlier this month.

In response to his bill, top Nutter administration officials testified they at least supported the idea. But in recent days, the concept has run into harsh reality and Kenney's drive to soften the city's pot laws has slowed.

Last week, the Criminal Justice Advisory Board - chaired by Mayor Nutter's chief of staff, Everett Gillison, and the president judge of the Court of Common Pleas, Sheila Woods-Skipper - said in a letter that Kenney's bill would create too many problems to implement. (The letter also said Council has no authority to tell the police what to do in this case.)

Kenney fired off a response Monday, saying he would "not waiver from my efforts to change the current misguided and stupid policies."

On Tuesday, Kenney met with the board and agreed to hold the legislation, which would have been up for a final vote this week. Instead, he will work with a small group of court, police, and other officials to try to iron out the kinks. "But I'm not going to wait forever, because people are still being locked up," he said.

Kenney wants people caught with less than an ounce of marijuana to be issued a summons to appear in court and then released. (He later amended his bill to delineate when offenders could be arrested, including if they couldn't prove their identity, had ignored previous summons, or had outstanding warrants.)

Kenney said ending weed arrests would save thousands of police hours spent on a low-level offense - last year 4,200 people were arrested for pot possession, he said. Recent ACLU studies have found a racial component to the law: More than 83 percent of those arrested in the city for marijuana were black.

But Director of Public Safety Michael Resnick said the city's criminal justice system isn't equipped to give out summons on the street or mail them out to pot offenders. The change also might not save time for officers, he said. All the information gathered on defendants who are arrested and given a preliminary arraignment still would have to be collected and entered into the court system, and the marijuana still would have to be processed, weighed, and tested at a forensic lab.

"This is a criminal justice process. . . . What one does affects all the others," he said. "How do these people get put into the system? How does the D.A. identify and charge them? How does the court keep track of the court dates?"

Resnick said police were worried that word on the street would be that no one gets arrested for pot anymore.

"Then that first cop who goes to make an arrest . . . there's going to be a conflict," he said.

Nonetheless, Resnick said the administration remained supportive of Kenney's idea.

215-854-2730 @troyjgraham

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