Friday, December 2, 2022
Home Crime Marijuana crimes are unnecessarily clogging up Lehigh Valley courts, new study says

Marijuana crimes are unnecessarily clogging up Lehigh Valley courts, new study says

by admin
0 comment

Marijuana cases are placing an unnecessary burden on the region’s criminal justice system, according to a new study by the Lehigh Valley Justice Institute.

The research and advocacy group based in Allentown reviewed 27,826 criminal cases of all sorts processed in Lehigh County and Northampton County between January 2018 and March 2021 and concluded “marijuana criminalization slows our criminal justice system” and burdens “understaffed public defenders.”

According to the report, one in six cases (4,559) of the 27,829 reviewed contained a marijuana charge and 96% of those cases involved a non-violent co-charge, or additional charge.

The report also found that marijuana cases took around 162 days, nearly five months, on average to reach a conclusion. The longest case researchers considered took more than three years, 1,129 days, to resolve, according to the report and only included an additional disorderly conduct charge that was later withdrawn.

Joe Welsh, executive director at the Lehigh Valley Justice Institute, said the report shows that marijuana cases are chewing up resources that could go toward handling “real crime.”

“Police are spending time charging people with marijuana offenses. That’s time taken away from serious crimes like rapes, murders and assaults,” Welsh said. “Particularly, considering that you can walk across the Northampton Street Bridge between Easton and Phillipsburg and purchase marijuana,” he said.

New Jersey officially launched sales of recreational marijuana in April this year. Phillipsburg’s The Apothecarium, formerly a medical marijuana dispensary, was among the first dispensaries to be allowed recreational sales in the state.

Pennsylvania state laws label possession of marijuana as a misdemeanor that carries a $500 fine and up to 30 days in prison. Local laws established in Bethlehem and Allentown in 2018, on the other hand, reduce those offenses to summaries, which don’t require an arrest and carry fines as low as $25 for a first offense.

Summary offenses also can be expunged after five years if the person is not rearrested within that period.

Severity of the charge is meant to be left to the officer’s discretion, but in Allentown and the portion of Bethlehem located in Lehigh County that isn’t the case. Since the ordinances’ passage, District Attorney Jim Martin has required police officers to charge marijuana offenses with state charges, in spite of efforts to decriminalize the substance at the local level

“Local city councils do not have the power or authority to deviate from state law. The state law preempts the field. I took an oath to uphold the U.S. and Commonwealth constitutions; therefore, I don’t decide to enforce only the laws I choose to enforce. I enforce the law as written,” Martin told lehighvalleylive.com via email.

According to Welsh, the report showed no difference between rates of marijuana charges in the Lehigh County and Northampton County portions of Bethlehem between the time the laws took effect and 2021. He said it was likely due to orders handed down by former police chief Mike DiLuzio, who retired in September 2020. He was replaced by Captain Michelle Kott.

Kott did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The justice institute’s report also comes at a time when thousands of Pennsylvanians are benefiting from a one-time pardon of marijuana charges by the state.

Gov. Tom Wolf announced in September plans to extend a pardon to people with a marijuana charge with “certain” co-charges, including minor, non-violent crimes.

The decision has been criticized for its potential to shut out thousands with non-qualifying crimes. It’s uncertain how many Lehigh Valley residents would benefit from the program.

Wolf said last month he was in favor of legalizing marijuana and the economic benefits it could bring to the state during a visit to Monroe County.

“To date, there has been no movement to advance legislation. So, I’m here today to ask again, and to focus on two particular benefits of legalization – potential economic growth and much-needed restorative justice.”

The 27,826 cases reviewed by the Lehigh Valley Justice Institute were obtained through the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. Cases were considered based on charges filed upon arrest. Withdrawn, dismissed or acquitted cases remained in the dataset, according to researchers. Data from the U.S. Census and Bureau of Justice Statistics were compared to determine population numbers.

Some cases were removed from the dataset in accordance with the Pennsylvania Clean Slate Law, the study noted. The study contended there were limitations to the analysis, such as accurately tracking racial disparities among residents who were not White or Black within the courts because the U.S. Census continues to label many Latinos as White.

By the numbers:

  • Black residents were six times more likely to be charged with marijuana possession than White residents, despite data suggesting both groups consume the substance at similar rates.
  • Younger people were more affected by marijuana laws. Four in ten (39.5%) cases with defendants aged 18-25 involved a marijuana charge. While 46.8% of all defendants were 26-40 years old, 45.7% of defendants in marijuana cases were 18-25 years old.
  • Marijuana case rates were similar for males and females. Marijuana charges existed in 16.9% of cases with male defendants and 14.7% of cases with female defendants.
  • 952 (20.9%) marijuana cases involved pretrial detention for at least three days due to failure to post bail, equating to one in five.
  • Three in ten (31.1%) marijuana cases retained a public defender, and marijuana cases accounted for 10.9% of cases with a public defender. Legalization would have unloaded 1,418 cases from public defenders’ offices between January 2018 and March 2021, according to the study.
  • 96% of the offenses charged in tandem with marijuana crimes were not violent.

Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to lehighvalleylive.com.

Glenn Epps can be reached at [email protected] or glenn_epps_on Twitter.

Leave a Comment