At first, Barry Houi of South Philadelphia decided to plead not guilty after he was busted for allegedly carrying a small amount of marijuana early last month.
But when the commissioner of a new diversionary court just for marijuana arrests told him about an alternative to prosecution, Houi opted for a class and a $200 fee.
“Might as well take the easy route,” Houi said after the Sept. 22 hearing. His three-hour class is scheduled for February and then he can seek to have his record expunged.
For a criminal justice system that handles more than 60,000 new cases a year — about 5,000 a month — officials say the Municipal Court for Small Amounts of Marijuana alleviates the overwhelmed and expensive Criminal Justice Center of hundreds of cases a month with its quick, normally one-hearing program. The marijuana court handled about 400 cases in August, its first full month after starting in mid-July.
The court is part of what many consider a shift in the prosecution of small marijuana arrests to help divert many of the city’s lesser criminal offenses from the CJC.
In April, District Attorney Seth Williams first announced a new approach to marijuana busts. “We have to be smart on crime,” he said then.
Janet DiTomasso, director of Diversion Programs for Municipal Court, said the program clears up a first-time offender’s record.
“If you’re a college kid and you’re caught smoking marijuana,” DiTomasso said, “do want that on your record?”
When asked about a shift in prosecuting small pot busts, state Supreme Court Chief Justice and former city DA Ron Castille told the Inquirer that removing those defendants from the main criminal courts would “unclog the system.”