RACINE — The City Council on Tuesday voted to order the city’s police chief to direct his officers to issue citations for first-time marijuana possession in cases involving under 25 grams, and to set a range for the fine from $1 to $75.
The city has had an ordinance stating that officers could issue citations for marijuana possession of less than 25 grams since 1990. But a Journal Times investigation from 2017 found that officers were twice as likely to issue criminal charges in such cases and that trend has continued.
During Tuesday’s meeting, City Attorney Scott Letteney said that according to records the city compiled for the discussion, in 2017 police issued 32 citations and 187 criminal charges for marijuana possession under 25 grams; so far in 2018 there have been 20 citations and 129 criminal charges. Letteney said he did not know if there were any other charges tied to the cases where the D.A. pursed criminal charges.
The City Council’s Public Safety and Licensing Committee met last week in closed session to discuss the motion of 3rd District Alderman John Tate II to make the changes in first-time possession cases and to set the fine stricture at a flat $1. The reason given by the City Attorney’s Office for the closed-door session was that Police Chief Art Howell wanted to discuss policing strategy in private. After last week’s deliberations, the committee recommended that the council receive and file the motion, essentially taking no action.
A long debate
At Tuesday’s Council meeting, the debate over whether the council should follow the committee’s recommendation or approve Tate’s proposal lasted at least two hours.
Tate argued that voters in a Nov. 6 referendum had voiced overwhelming support for decriminalization of marijuana. He also argued the disproportionate enforcement of drug laws exacerbate the city’s racial disparities, highlighted in a recent report that contends that the Racine area is one of the worst areas in the nation for African Americans.
Alderman Jason Meekma of the 14th District and Alderman Melissa Lemke of the 15th District also voiced strong support for Tate’s communications, stating that a non-violent crime such as marijuana possession did not justify incarceration and the negative effects it has on families and communities.
Alderman Henry Perez of the 12th District voiced strong opposition against taking away the discretion of officers and the Police Department on whether to issue a citation or felony charge. Aldermen Sandy Weidner of the 6th District and Carrie Glenn of the 10th District also voiced concern about the council overstepping by authorizing the order.
The vote breakdown
The motion to receive and file Tate’s communication was denied by a vote of 9-5. The motion to approve Tate’s report was approved, also by a vote of 9-5.
Aldermen who voted in favor of Tate’s recommendation were Tate, Meekma, Lemke, Mollie Jones, Tracey Larrin, Maurice Horton, Q.A. Shakoor II, Terry McCarthy and Mary Land. Those voting in opposition to the recommendation were Weidner, Glenn, Perez, Jeff Coe and Steve Smetana.
Tate’s initial recommendation to set the fine at $1 (plus court costs) was amended by Meekma and Tate and instead set a fine range from $1 to $75. Letteney said that with court costs those totals would range from approximately $62 to approximately $142. The council approved the range of fines unanimously.