Fayetteville City Council members on Tuesday unanimously passed a new measure to encourage the city prosecutor to dismiss most misdemeanor marijuana charges.
The ordinance, sponsored by Ward 2 Council Member Mark Kinion, came after a report from the Arkansas Justice Collective which found that arrests in Fayetteville for misdemeanor marijuana possession had not decreased since 2008 when voters approved a ballot measure that instructed the city to make misdemeanor marijuana cases its lowest law enforcement priority.
The report also stated that 26% of arrests or citations for misdemeanor marijuana offenses were to black people, which represent a much lower percentage of Fayetteville’s population.
City Attorney Kit Williams said while the prosecutor already has the power to dismiss cases that should not be further prosecuted, that discretion was not reflected in the city’s law book. This move, he said, could help clarify what voters intended when passing the 2008 measure.
Four people spoke during public comment on Tuesday, including NWA NAACP branch president Monique Jones and former Benton County Circuit Judge Jon Comstock.
The two said it’s important to consider dismissal of charges for youth who are low-level offenders, particularly because of studies that have shown the trajectory of a young person’s life can be altered dramatically by a conviction, even if it’s a small offense.
Council Member Matthew Petty said he hopes the ordinance is just the first step towards addressing the issue.
“It’s one thing to give the prosecutor the ability to dismiss cases and not put forward further penalties,” Petty said. “But it’s another thing to correct the excessive issuing of citations.”
Petty said he hopes the city can use the data that was recently unveiled as a lens in which to study the deep inherent biases that lead to a racial disproportionality in the number of low-level arrests and prosecutions in Fayetteville.
Mayor Jordan said he apologizes to anyone in Fayetteville who has ever felt marginalized or discriminated against. He said he’s spent most of his life fighting for equality, diversity and inclusion.
“I can’t always fix the past,” Jordan said. “But I can guarantee you that I can commit to ensure that this city does not ever sponsor systems that support any type of inequality.”
He said he believes the city’s police officers do a good job of avoiding racial profiling while working 12-hour days and risking their lives in the process. But, he said, he has asked the police chief to deliver a full report of marijuana arrest statistics to the council next week.
“Should we ever find inappropriate behavior, I can assure you we will take appropriate action to correct it,” he said.