Ask/Answered is a weekly feature for reader-submitted questions. Follow the blog online at www.cumberlink.com:
Does personal possession of marijuana drive incarceration rates?
No, it is very rare in Cumberland County for a person charged with just possession of a small amount of marijuana to wind up spending time in jail.
More than 250 people were charged with misdemeanor possession of a small amount of marijuana and a possible additional charge for possession of drug paraphernalia in Cumberland County in 2016, according to an analysis of court records conducted by The Sentinel in December. Roughly 220 of those cases were completed by the time The Sentinel did its analysis last year.
Only two defendants received any jail time for those charges, according to court records.
Both defendants had extenuating circumstances.
In one case the defendant had multiple bench warrants for failing to appear during her court case, which led to her being held in Cumberland County Prison for failure to pay cash bail three days before pleading guilty and being released, according to court records.
More than 70 percent of all people charged with just possession of a small amount of marijuana were required to only pay fines, fees and restitution, The Sentinel found.
Less than 30 defendants were given a probation sentence for their conviction, according to court records.
That is not to say an arrest or conviction for possession of marijuana can’t have lasting consequences to a person’s life, and the number of people charged only with possessing a small amount of marijuana has risen over recent years in the county.
About 275 cases of only small amount of marijuana possession were charged in 2017, and about 70 cases have been filed so far this year, according to court records.
Fines, fees and restitution for the cases reviewed by The Sentinel ranged from a total of about $122 to more than $3,000, according to court records.
A conviction for possession of a small amount of marijuana also carries a driver’s license suspension, makes a person ineligible for federal student financial aid and can cause complications for a person’s employment or housing.
However, these cases do not drive up the number of people serving time in jail or prison by a substantial amount.
More than 40 percent of admissions to state prison in 2016 were for the more serious Part I offenses, which include murder, aggravated assault and robbery, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections 2016 annual report.
About 20 percent of all admissions to state prison that year were a result of convictions for drug crime violations, which includes possession or sale of all illicit narcotics, according to the report.
Possession or even distribution of marijuana would only be a portion of those offenses.
To put this in perspective, nearly as many people were admitted into state prison for either robbery or aggravated assault in 2016 than were admitted for all drug crime violations.
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