Gretchen Schuldt
Court Watch

Decriminalize Pot?

State Public Defender's office recommends decriminalizing marijuana possession.

By , Wisconsin Justice Initiative - Sep 22nd, 2016 12:30 pm

Marijuana plant. Photo by Jennifer Martin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Marijuana plant. Photo by Jennifer Martin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Marijuana possession cases would be decriminalized so that first and second offenders would face forfeitures for violating ordinances instead of possible jail or prison time, under a recommendation from the State Public Defender’s office.The change would save the office money, since Indigent defendants who face forfeiture penalties — and not incarceration — are not entitled to court-appointed attorneys.

The office also is recommending the state eliminate the charge of felony bail jumping and give pay raises to private bar lawyers appointed to represent indigent defendants.

Demoting possession of marijuana from its criminal status could save the State Public Defender (SPD) almost $500,000 per year, according to an issue paper the submitted last week with the agency’s budget request.

Currently, simple possession is a misdemeanor for the first offense under state law, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. It is a felony for the second and subsequent offenses, punishable by up to three and a half years in prison and a $10,000 fine. The public defender is recommending that prosecutors charge the first two offenses as forfeitures and the third offense as a misdemeanor.

Some municipalities, such as Milwaukee, already have marijuana-possession ordinances on the books. Findings of guilt for those offenses do not result in criminal records. Many marijuana possession cases originally charged as crimes already end up as forfeitures, rather than criminal convictions, through routine plea negotiations, the public defender’s office said.

In fiscal year 2016, which ended June 30, “the SPD represented clients in almost 8,442 related to possession of drugs,” the SPD said. “If these cases would not have qualified for representation due to the suggested reclassification to ordinances, then the SPD would have saved $455,312.”

The office also is recommending the state do away with the felony bail-jumping charge, which is issued when someone already charged with a felony violates terms of his or her bond. Under the public defender’s recommendation, bail jumping would become a misdemeanor, whether or not the underlying charge is a felony.

Misdemeanor bail jumping can bring a maximum of 9 months in jail and a $10,000 fine; felony bail jumping carries maximum penalties of six years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

If the 8,147 felony bail jumping cases the public defender’s office handled in FY16 were charged as misdemeanors, the office could have saved about $770,000, the agency said in budget documents. The calculation is based on the difference in the cost difference between an average felony and average misdemeanor case.

In recommending a private bar pay increase, the public defender’s office said the existing $40 per hour rate has been in place since 1995, when it was reduced from $50 per hour. (Travel time is $25 per hour.) Forty bucks an hour now is “now unreasonably below market rate,” the SPD said. A 2013 Wisconsin State Bar study found that the median hourly rate for a criminal law private practicioner is $145.

The office is recommending private lawyers be paid $45 to $60 per hour, depending on the case. The raise would cost a total of $7.6 million in FY19, when it would take effect.

The SPD “is experiencing difficulty in making appointments to the private bar, especially in sexual assault cases, which has consequences for the justice system,” the office said in another issue paper. “Many offices serving counties outside of Milwaukee and Dane must routinely appoint attorneys from other counties, increasing travel time and mileage expenses.

The buying power of $40 in 1995 is the equivalent of $25.20 in 2014, the paper said.

There are about 1,200 lawyer on the list to take appointments, but in 2015, 13% did not accept a single case and 31% took fewer than 26, the SPD said.

Gretchen Schuldt writes a blog for Wisconsin Justice Initiative, whose mission is “​To improve the quality of justice in Wisconsin by educating the public about legal issues and ​encouraging civic engagement in and debate ​about the judicial system and its operation.”

11 thoughts on “Court Watch: Decriminalize Pot?”

  1. mbradleyc says:

    Excellent! Little by little we are getting there.

  2. wisconsin conservative digest says:

    It virtually has been decriminalized and has contribute mightily to the heroin epidemic. The cartels in Mexico have seen he loss of income from pot so went reply into cheap Horse(heroin) and re spreading it.
    As a pharmacy student we have studied this for 50 years. In 1962 MD’s told us: “once on horse, on horse forever just like alcoholics, have to fight it every day.
    Legal opioid sales have contribute but not near as much as Pot.. Schuldt is worthless character, do not believe her lies at any time.

  3. Vincent Hanna says:

    It really hasn’t been decriminalized though. Not in most of the country. And the feds haven’t changed how it’s categorized. How is pot contributing mightily to the heroin epidemic?

    From a Vox story published two weeks ago:

    “The opioid painkiller epidemic picked up all throughout the 2000s. Heroin lagged behind as opioid users slowly shifted from painkillers to the more potent drug, but overdose deaths linked to heroin started to seriously pick up around 2011.

    Now consider the timing of legalization. Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize marijuana in 2012. Retail sales did not begin until 2014 — and Washington suffered from a big marijuana shortage for most of that year.

    The timeline shows legalization couldn’t have caused the heroin epidemic. By the time Colorado shops began selling marijuana, heroin deaths had already hit more than 8,200 in 2013, rising from around 1,600 to 2,000 for most of the 2000s. The heroin epidemic was already well underway by the time legalization arrived.”

  4. Tim says:

    Vincent Hanna, Not only does legal marijuana not cause heroin deaths… there’s evidence it reduces deaths from opioids.

  5. Vincent Hanna says:

    Yeah the Vox story mentions that as well Tim. We had what 78 opioid overdoes deaths in like 6 weeks in the county? It’s even worse in many other places. It’s painfully obvious that alcohol and opioids are far bigger problems than weed.

  6. mbradleyc says:

    I used to smoke a lot a long time ago. Now it is rare.

    Never in my life have I desired heroin.

    Alcohol is the true entry drug. Talk about denial!

  7. wisconsin conservative Digest says:

    As a clinical pharmacist, spent years working in nursing homes/rehab, reading thousands of studies, have ever seen any study showing alcohol to be the entry drug, always pot. Studies all prove that pothead syndrome is real,
    T The belief that people drank alcohol, and water, before they started horse are idiotic. but never have I seen a study showing someone to get hooked on heroin without doing pot first.
    Pot heads never change, some go on to use heroin, coke, others but around 20% or so. Lot use it and turn away just like kids booze in 20’s, but never become alcoholics.
    fact is that once a big heroin user you are hooked for life.

  8. Vincent Hanna says:

    WCD get with the times man. Plenty of people get hooked on heroin without doing pot first. It starts with painkillers but those get too expensive or hard to get and heroin is cheaper and easier to get. This is common knowledge.

  9. mbradleyc says:

    Before they tried pot, I guarantee you they drank alcohol. I did.

    That’s just so obvious, only an addict would not see it.

  10. Troll Hunter says:

    WCD… your typing skills and sentence structure are completely a disgrace for a clinical pharmacist, aka white collar drug dealer, and give them a bad name.

    It’s like your English and grammar skills are less than that of a 3rd grader. And let’s talk about “worthless character”, pot calling the kettle black.

    No… cannabis is NOT a “Gateway” drug. The most harmful aspect of the marijuana plant is not the plant or its affects, but out laws surrounding it. We’ve ruined countless lives, families, and careers over marijuana criminalization.

    Even doctors realize pot is not nearly as harmful as alcohol and tobacco… or even caffeine. I also realize arguing with trollsnlike yourself is pointless.

  11. Matt says:

    Legalize, tax and regulate cannabis Wisconsin.

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