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High Crimes: Marijuana decriminalization could bring equity to cases

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Statewide decriminalization of the possession of a small amount of marijuana would have little effect on case sentences in Cumberland County, but could bring a greater level of equity to how defendants are treated.

That is according to an analysis conducted by The Sentinel that reviewed more than 220 criminal cases filed in the county in 2016 where the defendant was charged only with possession of a small amount of marijuana with a possible additional charge of possession of drug paraphernalia.

Any cases where the defendant was charged with crimes code, traffic or other drug charges were not included in the study.

Both charges are considered misdemeanors under current law and are generally covered by proposals to decriminalize personal use of marijuana. These bills do not legalize the drug, but typically reduce the penalty for possessing 30 grams or less of marijuana, as well as drug paraphernalia.

The general format is to gradually increase the penalty as a person gets caught. A first or second offense would be a fine-only summary offense with no possible jail time and third or subsequent would be a misdemeanor with an increased fine and the possibility of jail as punishment.

Defendants charged in Cumberland County in 2016 were sentenced to jail or probation in less than 15 percent of the cases. Most defendants given probation sentences were placed there expressly for collection purposes, according to court records.

Only two defendants received jail time. One was also sentenced to an overlapping jail term in a separate case. The other was sentenced to a maximum of seven days in jail and released upon her plea having been held pretrial for failing to appear for court, according to court records.

“This confirms what I would have conjectured, which is we are basically operating on a fine system,” U.S. Attorney David Freed said. “Even the people who are put on any kind of probation, it’s generally unsupervised.”

At the time of the interview, Freed was the district attorney in Cumberland County.

Most defendants, more than 80 percent, were ordered to pay fines, fees and costs or were given the opportunity to have their cases ended prior to a conviction, The Sentinel found.

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Decriminalization costs

Defendants charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana in Cumberland County in 2016 faced vastly different outcomes, according to court records.

The amount a defendant was ordered to pay, however, varied widely, ranging from as low as $120 to more than $1,900. The average defendant had to pay nearly $700.

These variations do not appear to be tied to factors like the defendant’s age or criminal history, but were largely the result of simply how long a case remained in the system.

“The longer you go and the further you go up the system, you rack up more of those costs,” Freed said.

For example, a 33-year-old white man from Camp Hill with no prior criminal history had his case reduced to summary disorderly conduct under a Lemoyne ordinance at the magisterial district judge level.

He was ordered to a pay $134.50, according to court records.

More than half of that went toward a statutory fine and court costs, court records show.

A 19-year-old white man from York, who also had no prior criminal history, received a less favorable outcome.

The York man was arrested in Dickinson Township and waived his preliminary hearing, which sent his case to higher court, according to court records.

He pleaded guilty at the common pleas level to the misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia charge and was ordered to pay more than $1,000 in fines, fees and costs.

Of that, $200 was for the statutory penalty for the charge.

The remaining nearly $900 was accumulated through court fees and costs including a $300 non-DUI booking center fee, $100 toward the substance-abuse education fund, $36.75 for a judgement/satisfaction fee, $5 for firearm education and training fund, $35 to the crime victims’ compensation fund and $10 for the domestic violence compensation fund.

The case did not involve a firearm, domestic violence or an individual victim.

Less than $76 was listed as assessed to recoup the cost of prosecution, according to court records.

At $189, a plea fee that is assessed on cases that reach the common pleas level but are disposed of prior to trial, cost this defendant more than the entirety of what the Camp Hill man was charged.

Freed said the decision to accept a plea at the lower-court level, and what plea to allow, for low-level offenses like this is largely left up to police.

“What we’ve done over a number of years is lay out a policy that police chiefs are empowered to resolve cases at the (magisterial district judge) and they can designate anybody they want,” Freed said. “The key for me is I just want somebody to be responsible for it.”

That decision at the lower court level can be pivotal in determining how much a defendant will have to pay.

As cases rise through the system, the amount of court-imposed debt expands, according to The Sentinel’s analysis.

The median amount imposed for a case that was reduced to a summary charge at the magisterial district judge level was $304, according to The Sentinel’s analysis.

That number more than doubled to $674 if the defendant pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge at the magisterial district judge level and nearly tripled to almost $900 if the case reached Freed’s office and common pleas court, according to court records.

“In the grand scheme of things it’s a minor offense, but it’s still an offense,” Freed said.

“I think you will find that other counties are handling it the same way,” he said. “The inconsistency (in fines, fees and costs) is interesting, though. I don’t know how to explain it.”

Email Joshua Vaughn at jvaughn@cumberlink.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Sentinel_Vaughn.

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Cops & Courts Reporter

Crime & Courts Reporter at The Sentinel.

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