Pubdate: Mon, 29 Feb 2016
Source: Citizens' Voice, The (Wilkes-Barre, PA)
Copyright: 2016 The Citizens' Voice
Author: Jacob Seibel


WILKES-BARRE - It's not a soft spot in their heart that has city 
officials pushing to decriminalize a minor drug offense, but rather a 
soft spot in their wallet.

Mayor Tony George and his administration aim to reduce possession of 
drug paraphernalia from a misdemeanor criminal offense to a summary 
offense so the city could boost its coffers with the money collected 
through city-issued citations. City council at its regular meeting 
Thursday unanimously approved the first of two readings of the motion 
to amend Wilkes-Barre's ordinance. The maximum penalty for a summary 
conviction is a $300 fine. Defaulting on the payment could land an 
offender in Luzerne County Correctional Facility for up to 90 days.

Wilkes-Barre officials say the ordinance stands to bring thousands of 
dollars into the city, which could ease recent financial concerns 
over a multimillion dollar shortfall in 2015 from the previous 
administration coupled with unbudgeted hires George made this year 
when he took the helm.

Police Chief Marcella Lendacky said research shows similar ordinances 
adopted in third-class cities have proven successful. Hazleton's 
ordinance, in effect since 1998, served as the blueprint for 
Wilkes-Barre's version.

"That was my whole thing," Lendacky said. "It was already tried and true."

She said the records sergeant at the police department sifted through 
in-house data on drug paraphernalia charges in preparation for 
Tuesday's work session when city officials first pitched the idea to 
city council. Last year, she said, more than 300 paraphernalia 
charges had been filed.

That is a low-end estimate, she added, because the police department 
doesn't track any changes to criminal cases after the time of 
arraignment. Most cases are resolved through plea bargains, so the 
city has no record of drug paraphernalia charges that might have been 
changed or dropped.

With criminal offenses, the bulk of money collected by magisterial 
districts courts and common pleas courts goes into Pennsylvania's 
general fund. The state designates possession of drug paraphernalia 
as a misdemeanor carrying a fine up to $2,500 and a maximum one year in jail.

By reclassifying the paraphernalia charge to a summary, the city 
would receive the full amount of the fine, according to city 
officials. Hypothetically, had each of last year's paraphernalia 
charges been issued as a citation with a $300 fine attached to it, 
the ordinance would have potentially generated $90,000 in revenue. 
That's if 100 percent of the fines were collected, which is not the 
case in any municipality.

Council is scheduled to vote on the second and final reading of the 
paraphernalia ordinance at its next regular meeting March 10.

Lendacky said the city is going to review a similar law in 
Philadelphia that decriminalized possessing and smoking small amounts 
of marijuana.

A Wilkes-Barre resident at Thursday's meeting piqued Lendacky's 
interest when he had handed council members copies of the 
Philadelphia bill before giving a five-minute overview to those in attendance.

Nonviolent drug and alcohol abuse, the bill said, is proven to cause 
long-term health risks and should be dealt with as a public health 
issue, not as a criminal issue. Using criminal means for minor 
violations doesn't deter drug and alcohol abuse, but instead increase 
the number of people with life-changing criminal records, according 
to the document.

"This caught my ear right away," Lendacky said. "That got my attention."

Before October 2014, when then Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter 
signed the council bill into law, about 4,000 people in the city were 
being arrested each year for possessing a small amount of non-medical 
marijuana. These arrests, the document said, required substantial 
cost to taxpayers, a significant dedication of law enforcement, court 
and prison resources.

Under the ordinance, those caught with less than 30 grams of herb get 
a citation carrying a $25 fine while those who get caught smoking it 
get cited with a $100 fine.

Lendacky said decriminalization seems to work well in cities the size 
of Philadelphia. Adopting that law in WilkesBarre, however, would 
depend largely on whether the state allows third-class cities to 
qualify, which is be the first thing Lendacky said city officials need to check.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom