VOL. 131 | NO. 200 | Thursday, October 6, 2016
Pot Vote Seen as Foothold in Memphis Criminal Justice Changes
By Bill Dries
There were two gateway debates in Memphis City Council chambers Tuesday, Oct. 4, as it debated and then approved an ordinance that gives Memphis Police the discretion to write a ticket with a $50 fine for possession of a half ounce or less of marijuana.
Most of the eight citizens who came to speak on the issue saw the ordinance as a gateway to eventual legalization of marijuana, which they favored.
But the sponsor of the measure, council member Berlin Boyd, and the other six council members voting for it saw the ordinance as a gateway to changes in the local criminal justice system that have nothing to do with legalizing marijuana. Those voting no questioned whether the changes were valid, even if needed, or would create more complexity, but also emphasized the vote wasn’t about legalizing pot.
“This is not legalization. This is not even decriminalization,” said council member Worth Morgan. “People really, really need to understand that and I’m not sure that’s the case judging from some of the comments from the audience.”
“We have some ignorant people in our city,” said council member Janis Fullilove.
Boyd said he will not try to use the ordinance as the tip of a spear toward legalization. Instead, he said he would use the council vote to push for further reforms to the criminal justice system.
“We’re trying to reduce some of the fines, reduce some of the felonies to help those individuals to get jobs and get an education … and get on with their lives,” Boyd said. “We’re in the Bible belt. To have a measure like this moving into this direction, it shows that we are finally becoming somewhat progressive in our thinking.”
The council’s final approval came two weeks after the Metro Nashville Council approved a similar ordinance there.
“If Nashville’s passage of this had any effect, I think we would have had a unanimous vote or 12-1,” Boyd said, dismissing any strong influence on the Memphis results.
“I think you will start seeing a movement from the council to start addressing some of the disparities in our laws in the city of Memphis,” he added. “Figure out ways that we can start not focusing on fees, but focus on lives. I think if we put the lives first, then you will start seeing a reduction – a correlation and reduction of the overall crime, the homicides and the misdemeanor offenses.”
Shelby County Commissioners Van Turner and Reginald Milton had said they would push for a similar ordinance in the unincorporated county if the council approved the ordinance Tuesday.
Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings questioned how the citations for violating the ordinance will be handled in City Court and whether City Court judges can allow someone to serve community service hours instead of the fine, as provided for in the ordinance.
As a result, he said his officers will not begin using the option of a ticket with a $50 fine until specific details of the move to City Court are established.
Rallings had opposed the ordinance in general, saying the police director should not send a message that smoking marijuana is permissible.
By Tuesday’s vote, Rallings said we would “neither oppose nor advocate for” it.
“Half an ounce is too much,” Rallings said, adding a half an ounce could produce 37 joints. “We still think that’s more than casual possession.”
His other concerns were “losing funding for drug education and prevention.”
Boyd said that was the argument he faced consistently as he began talking with criminal justice system leaders about his proposal.
Similarly, advocates of eliminating the $450 per person expungement fee for a first-time offender who stays out of trouble for five years after serving prison time have said they have also encountered the same argument.
“It’s disheartening to think that a reduction in fines does not create additional dollars for us to fund our city on the backs of poor people,” council member Patrice Robinson said. “Come on guys, we’ve got to do better.”
Council member Edmund Ford Jr. said the fines and fees are “fueling the disparities we have in criminal justice.”
“I don’t think the crime fits the time all the time,” Ford said. “If we are ever going to make a dent in reducing the incarceration rate and having a serious conversation about true policy reform, then we are going to have to do something about the regressive policies we have on the books now.”
But council member Frank Colvett argued that the issue is “personal responsibility” and that the system as it currently exists offers chances for misdemeanor offenders to have their records expunged and that there are second chances.
“Third offense, I start to ask the question about personal responsibility,” Colvett said. “You may get diversion, but you are not out of work. … I still say there are a lot of questions about this ordinance we need to work on.”
Boyd, meanwhile, said the action answers a more basic question.
“I think you have to look at the circumstances in which we live in our city. We have a high poverty rate in our African-American community. The crimes are being committed by African-Americans. Let’s ask ourselves why,” he said. “The answer is, if you strip away a man or woman’s opportunity, they don’t have any other options in life but to commit crimes.”