Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
State Sen. Mike Stack, a Philadelphia Democrat and candidate for lieutenant governor, is proposing to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Two measures, introduced this week, would reduce the penalties for having less than an ounce of marijuana and make it easier for people convicted on marijuana charges to have their records cleared. Under Stack's legislation, the first two offenses for possessing marijuana would be summary offenses - the least serious charge in Pennsylvania's criminal justice system. Upon a third offense, district attorneys would have more "discretion" in proceeding with charges.
"It's just a no-brainer that too often our criminal justice system is being backlogged by this type of crime and we need to decriminalize it," said Stack. "It's going to save us billions of dollars in criminal justice expenses and prison costs."
The measures face long odds in the state Senate. Democratic proposals to legalize marijuana have languished for years without so much as a nod from the GOP majority, and the caucus leader's spokesman told Capitolwire Wednesday that there are no plans to take up decriminalization.
But a bipartisan push to legalize a certain kind of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania has stoked debate over Pennsylvania's drug laws. Stack says he thinks support for medical marijuana is growing, and decriminalization could be the next step.
State data alone doesn't suggest prisons are bloated with drug offenders. The most recent available report by the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing shows that 256 marijuana sentences were sent to state prisons in 2012, a year that saw 140,426 offenses sentenced. Five sentences for "small amounts of marijuana" were reported in state prisons in 2012. County jails listed 165 sentences for "small amounts of marijuana" in 2012.
The average sentences ranged from 12 days to 27 days for state prison inmates convicted for possessing small amounts of marijuana, according to Sue Bensinger, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. The average sentence for all marijuana offenders sent to the state prison system was between about one-and-a-half and three-and-a-half years, Bensinger said.
But Sen. Daylin Leach, a longtime proponent of marijuana legalization, said statistics don't reflect what what's happening. "You have to look at it a little more deeply than that," he said. Leach has served on the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing (the source of the above statistics) since 2011.
Multiple offenses have a "cumulative" effect on a person's record and sentencing, said Leach.
"Your second offense is punished worse than the first offense," he said. "The same is true of third offense versus second offense. So there are people in prison for things like burglary or assault in state prison who wouldn't have been in state prison if it hadn't been for previous or concurrent marijuana convictions."
Leach argues that sentencing data for charges that have nothing to do with drugs -- burglary, arson, assault -- belie the effect of marijuana laws on incarceration rates.
"There are more people in state prison for marijuana than those who were sent specifically for marijuana," Leach said.
Published in State House Sound Bites
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