Report claims Fayetteville criminal justice system overprosecutes marijuana offenses

Fox 24

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KFTA)–Fayetteville passed a 2008 ballot measure to designate marijuana as the lowest priority for city police and prosecutors. One activist published a report that provided statistics indicating the arrest numbers have only increased since that time.

Stephen Coger, the director of Arkansas Justice Collective, published a report titled “A Myth of Progress: Marijuana, Racial Discrimination & Injustice in Fayetteville”. He used police department statistics to calculate that the number of marijuana arrests has increased by 284 percent despite a population increase of only 13 percent.

“For me, the biggest perpetrator of violence here is the prosecutor who knows that this is happening, and his boss is Kit Williams, so I’m holding Kit Williams responsible,” Coger said.

The data indicated that minority groups are disproportionately affected in marijuana charges. The African-American community made up 37 percent of felony marijuana arrests in 2018 even though it accounted for less than 7 percent of the population, according to police statistics cited in the report.

Sgt. Tony Murphy with the Fayetteville Police Department said officers are doing their jobs since weed is still illegal.

“We’re people, too. We’re citizens, and we’re paid to enforce the laws of the state that are set forward by the state,” Murphy said. “If the state legislatures decide that they want to make marijuana legal, police officers will stop enforcing marijuana laws.”

Murphy disputed Coger’s report and said the 2008 ballot measure simply put into words something that’s always been the norm: police already place a low priority on weed.

“Officers don’t want to take people to jail for marijuana possession,” Murphy said. “We see that on a daily basis when they’re written citations for it.”

Blake Pennington, Fayetteville’s assistant city attorney, wrote an open letter to Coger and said the report contained incorrect information. He suggested nothing can be done unless there’s a change at a higher level.

“Our Police Department and City Prosecutor already treat the arrest and prosecution of misdemeanor marijuana possession as low priority, which is a policy enacted by the voters of Fayetteville on November 4, 2008,” Pennington wrote. “The most appropriate way to handle this issue is to change the law, which can only be done on the federal or state level.”

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