As part of Dane County Executive Joe Parisi’s initiatives to remove barriers and address disparities, a county committee voted Tuesday evening to lower the county fine for possession of marijuana, with hopes municipalities will follow suit.
The current ordinance allows a forfeiture of up to $1,000 for possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana, although the average forfeiture actually imposed in 2014 was about $110 plus court costs, according to the fiscal note on the resolution. On Tuesday, the Public Protection and Judiciary Committee voted to lower that to a mere $10, or about $70 with court costs. The proposal will move on to the County Board for final approval.
“We would hope that other municipalities would look at that and follow suit so that everyone is treated the same and so the penalties aren’t disproportionate to the offense,” Parisi said.
The fines for marijuana and other offenses vary significantly throughout the county, and Parisi plans to send out a letter in coming weeks urging all of them to examine all of their fines, including marijuana.
“Hopefully we wouldn’t want someone who makes a mistake, especially a young person who gets caught with a small amount of marijuana, to have the penalty be so severe that it basically propels them further into the criminal justice system instead of helping them find their way back on the right path,” Parisi said.
Municipal fines throughout the county for possession of small amounts marijuana range anywhere from Madison’s minimal $50 charge to Fitchburg’s comparatively whopping $1,000. With court costs, the Fitchburg total tops $1,300.
“It really should not be a factor of which side of the street you live on for how much you have to pay,” Community Relations Director Tamara Grigsby said Tuesday evening.
Parisi and other community organizations say those fines, whether for marijuana or other offenses, can create a detrimental cycle with difficulty getting drivers licenses or work permits when those fines go unpaid.
“One fine leads to another fine, leads to another warrant, it just kind of sets the stage for a person to be part of the system,” said Young, Gifted and Black Coalition leader Brandi Grayson Tuesday evening, speaking in support of the changes.
Residents of Dane County voted in favor of legalization of marijuana in a referendum last year, a factor Supervisor Leland Pan pointed out Tuesday evening. Until state law changes, he said, the county should take all the steps it can to work toward legalization.
Madison Police Chief Mike Koval has also said he’s willing to talk about enforcement of marijuana violations. With Madison’s fines on the low end, Koval said he would like to see a uniform deposit schedule across the county or state and alternative options like public service in lieu of a payment.
“A lot of parents are paying these tickets for all the white kids,” Koval said. “When we have African-Americans in particular that are woefully lagging in the economic sphere: who’s paying those tickets? The entire family is saddled with the burden.”