SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - Is a recent change in punishments for marijuana possession making a difference in Savannah? The new ordinance allows officers to write a ticket for breaking a city code when someone has less than an ounce of marijuana. The department thinks the change is working.
Maj. Robert Gavin spearheaded the department’s training policy under the change. He cited data showing misdemeanor marijuana arrests disproportionately affect young men of color. Writing a ticket instead of arresting prevents someone from getting a criminal record so early on.
Savannah police officers walking the streets are adjusting with the big change.
“Getting officers to understand this adds another tool to their tool belt," Gavin said. "It gives them the ability to know that someone walking away unaccountable, that there is some punishment for breaking this ordinance.”
That punishment can now come in the form of a fine, instead of an arrest. The officer makes that decision. The ordinance outlines punishment. The first offense is a $150 fine and a ticket.
In the first 18 months of the change, arrest numbers are way down. Officers ticketed 675 people from July of 2018 through January of this year. In that same time frame, they only booked 87 people in jail for the same offense, according to data from the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office.
“If they give them a break on that, and they use it as a wake-up, some kids use it as that, some kids don’t," Gavin said. "Juveniles or younger guys can still go in the military, can still go to college, can still do all those things.”
Gavin said the department hears the criticism of people calling it soft on crime or legalizing marijuana. He said critics should instead see the change as a way to punish someone and hold them accountable without long-term effects. The department had been arresting 600-700 hundred people every year on the charge.
Allowing officers to write tickets also frees them up to stay on patrol and focus on proactive policing.