Bill Decriminalizing Nuisance Offenses Advances in Council

The Kenney administration says the legislation would help police manage the DNC.

Mayor Jim Kenney delivers his budget address to city council Thursday, March 3, 2016, at City Hall in Philadelphia. Kenney is expected to ask for a soda tax to help fund several new initiatives including universal pre-K in his first budget address to city council. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Mayor Jim Kenney in City Council chambers. | Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

A City Council committee approved a bill on Wednesday that would let police handle certain nuisance offenses like disorderly conduct or blocking the highway without making arrests or slapping offenders with a criminal record.

The bill was introduced on behalf of Mayor Jim Kenney ahead of the Democratic National Convention, which is coming to Philadelphia this July. It adds a number of offenses — disorderly conduct, failure to disperse, public drunkenness, and obstructing a highway or other public passage — to the Philadelphia code. That would allow cops to serve offenders with tickets rather than filing charges against them under state law.

“This bill will enhance the Police Department’s ability to respond to nonviolent incidents that occur during the Democratic National Convention this summer without unnecessarily overwhelming our criminal justice system,” said Julie Wertheimer, chief-of-staff to Benjamin Lerner, the administration’s deputy managing director for criminal justice.

But the bill is also about basic fairness, said Police Captain Francis Healy, a special advisor to Commissioner Richard Ross. Healy pointed out that since marijuana has been decriminalized in Philadelphia, some of the offenses included in the bill currently carry more severe penalties than possession of weed, which is still a federal offense. The current policy leads to unjust treatment, which is bad for community relations, Healy said.

“[The bill] is a fair and procedurally just solution and will help build trust and legitimacy of the police who are tasked with enforcing these laws within the communities we serve,” Healy said.

The city recently received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to help reduce the local prison population by one-third. The Kenney administration hopes this bill will keep low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system on the front end.

Also on Wednesday, a Council committee approved a bill sponsored by Darrell Clarke that would require gun owners who live with children in their homes to leave their firearms unloaded and locked away when they’re not carrying them, and to store ammunition separately from guns.

Follow @jaredbrey on Twitter.