Pubdate: Tue, 08 Feb 2000
Source: Cincinnati Post (OH)
Copyright: 2000 The Cincinnati Post
Author: Andrew Conte, Post staff reporter


Penalties Streamlined For Small Offenses

People caught smoking marijuana in Hamilton County face no greater penalty 
than those cited for littering, playing loud music or letting a dog off its 
leash, under new guidelines adopted by the Hamilton County Municipal Court.

The fine for possessing small amounts of marijuana will be reduced from 
$149 to $100 as of March 1, making the penalty even with those for 17 other 
minor misdemeanor violations, judges ruled.

Like marijuana possession, fines for littering and disorderly conduct were 
reduced (by $36 each); other misdemeanor penalties increased by as much as $34.

The changes create consistency among the fines and should reduce paperwork, 
clerks said.

They hope more criminals will simply pay the penalties rather than ask for 
an extension or contest the charges in court.

But even if the reduced fine for marijuana possession makes the court's job 
easier, it gives the public a wrong impression, said Rhonda Ramsey Molina, 
executive director of the Coalition for a Drug Free Greater Cincinnati.

''It's tragic in terms of the message it sends to the general public,'' she 
said. ''The message it sends is that we're decreasing the penalty because 
it's not quite so bad. We're giving into the (drug) legalization messages.''

Others wonder how criminals can afford to purchase marijuana, and not be 
able to pay the higher penalties when they are caught.

''Any time you back off of sentencing someone responsible for a crime, they 
may very well continue to break the law and violate those statutes,'' said 
Andie Rehkamp, director of Cincinnati's Mothers Against Drunk Driving 
chapter. ''They have money for the marijuana - why don't they have money to 
pay their fines?''

The new guidelines, which were approved by eight municipal judges and 
entered in the court record Jan. 27, encourage defendants to pay off their 
fines rather than stretch out the legal process, clerks said.

Anyone caught violating one of the 18 minor misdemeanors - including 
possession of less than about 3 1/2 ounces of marijuana - can pay a $100 
fine within 168 hours. The fee includes $53 in court costs.

The penalties quickly increase up to $175 if the defendant waits to pay the 
fine, chooses to appear in court or simply ignores the penalty and has a 
warrant issued for an arrest.

''The message we're trying to send is one of efficiency and uniformity,'' 
said Michael Walton, municipal court administrator.

''If you want to smoke marijuana, realistically-speaking, you're going to 
do so whether the fine is $100 or $150. I don't think we're sending the 
wrong message or are encouraging marijuana use.''

Under the current $149 fine for marijuana possession, many defendants 
automatically ask the court for a ''stay'' - or extension - claiming that 
they cannot afford to pay the penalty, said Tony Upton, assistant court 

Others simply ignore the financial penalties and end up having a warrant 
issued for their arrest.

Either way, they end up costing the court - and the taxpayers - more money, 
he added.

''It's an effort to clean the system up, to get people to comply,'' Upton 
said. ''We were concerned because everybody who walked in would say they 
wanted a stay. We're trying to get them to pay it beforehand.''

Those intentions may be admirable, but they could shift the goal away from 
detering drug use, said Nan Franks Richardson, CEO of Citizens Against 
Substance Abuse and the Alcoholism Council of the Cincinnati Area.

''It sounds like we're making it easier for courts to collect fines than to 
reinforce the deterrent of marijuana use,'' she said.

''It also reflects our culture's ambivalence about the use of marijuana.

''On one hand, we say it's an illegal drug, and on the other hand, we view 
it far more ambivalently than other drugs of its kind.''
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