In a move that reflects both the growing understanding that the penalties for possession of marijuana should be relaxed, as well as the fact that the criminal justice system has become clogged with prosecutions for lesser offenses, the City Council has proposed to make certain offenses violations of city ordinances.
The Lens reports the following:
The City Council is set to ease the punishment for some misdemeanors in an effort to unclog the city’s jails and courts. Instead of an arrest on a state charge, offenders could get a ticket ordering them to municipal court on four specific crimes:
• Simple possession of marijuana
• Interfering with a law enforcement investigation
• Flight from an officer
Marijuana possession is by far the most common charge among those up for review.
The measures were introduced at the City Council meeting last week. If approved, the moves will support efforts by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Criminal Justice Working Group to reduce the number of inmates in the city’s jail.
The four ordinances would create four new city-level crimes, and officers would be encouraged to charge offenders with these, instead of similar state charges, which have been prosecuted by District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. The city charges would be handled by City Attorney Nannette Jolivette Brown.
The council’s Criminal Justice Committee has decided against effectively downgrading another charge after Cannizzaro raised concerns in early October: Possession of controlled dangerous substances in the presence of a minor. Cannizzaro’s spokesman explained the reason for his boss’ concerns.
“We didn’t want to get someone picked up for possession of heroin, plead guilty to the possession [in the presence of a minor] charge in municipal court and then have double-jeopardy issues with the heroin charge in state court,” Assistant District Attorney Chris Bowman said.
The ordinances will be discussed at the Criminal Justice Committee on Wednesday and will move forward for a final council vote on December 16.
About 2,500 people a year are jailed in New Orleans for simple marijuana possession, according to the Vera Institute of Justice New Orleans, and in theory, all of them could be given summonses as a result of the new municipal ordinances, instead of being arrested and taken to jail on state charges. Vera, which has been pushing for the reforms, is expecting that 67 percent of arrestees will be given summonses — around 1,700 fewer jail admissions for simple marijuana possession over a year.
“You can see a significant reduction in the use of jail beds flowing from these reforms,” Vera Director Jon Wool said.