Lawrence City Commission interested in potential ordinance changes that aim to decriminalize poverty, other social issues

photo by: City of Lawrence

The Lawrence City Commission discussed making potential changes to city ordinances as part of its meeting Sept. 7, 2021.

City leaders are interested in continuing a discussion about the decriminalization of certain behaviors associated with homelessness or other social issues, such as removing contents from a refuse container, violating park hours and consumption of alcohol in public.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission discussed the potential repeal or amendment of various city ordinances that deal with social issues or that criminalize behaviors associated with poverty. Commissioners indicated they would like to consider potential changes and will soon discuss a process for doing so.

Commissioner Jennifer Ananda, who has a background in law and social work, said that some of the behaviors have historically been in the criminal code, but that she’d like the city to consider an alternative means of addressing those issues or a different kind of code. Ananda said she thought the city was asking law enforcement to do work that was not necessarily law enforcement-related, and the more difficult task would be determining a better way to achieve the safety or other outcomes that the city seeks.

“So I kind of went down this philosophical rabbit hole of how do we actually address these issues that are largely safety issues or community value-based issues, so that we can create the expectation that we’re helping our community reach those standards rather than punishing them for not reaching those standards,” Ananda said. “I think that for me is kind of the heart of this dialogue.”

The commission discussed various ordinances identified by city staff and the Douglas County Anti-Poverty Workgroup. Those included ordinances against removing contents of a refuse container, “aggressive” panhandling, violation of park hours, consumption of alcohol in public places, illegal camping, indecent exposure, jaywalking and parking a car on an unimproved surface, among others.

Interim police Chief Adam Heffley said that the police department has always had what he called a “fix-it ticket,” in which people issued certain citations have the opportunity to correct the issue and have the ticket voided once they can show proof of doing so. Citing the example of someone with cars parked on their lawn, Vice Mayor Courtney Shipley said it would be helpful to have a list of such violations and then come up with a way to address them in a way that doesn’t burden police with what she said is essentially a code enforcement issue.

Mayor Brad Finkeldei, an attorney who has been involved with various social service organizations, recognized some of the issues the Anti-Poverty Workgroup sought to address. For those who can’t afford to pay a citation, he said fines and fees can pile up and they can get in a downward spiral. He said that can happen with various crimes, and that the city should consider all those elements and try to find the right balance for Lawrence.

“Even for a serious crime or a crime that we all agree was a crime that no one disputes, you can still get someone caught in that spiral,” Finkeldei said. “Often talked about is driving without insurance, driving on suspended license. How do you help break people out of that poverty cycle? It’s not always on the crime side, but on the collection, prosecution and the judge side of that.”

Finkeldei also asked City Prosecutor Elizabeth Hafoka if there were changes or more flexibility that could be beneficial. Hafoka said some of the people in the municipal court system are facing mental health challenges compounded by substance abuse, and they could benefit from more meaningful treatment programs.

Commissioners also received a table of how many citations the city has issued for various offenses from 2016 to 2020. The table indicated the city has stopped or greatly reduced the number of citations it issues for some crimes — for example, illegal camping, for which no citations were issued in 2020. Commissioner Stuart Boley said he appreciated receiving that information because it helps put the conversation in perspective.

As part of the meeting, the commission also received an update on the implementation plan for the recommendations from the recently completed police study and discussed “8 Can’t Wait” strategies, eight policies that the police reform organization Campaign Zero recommends to curtail police violence. Conversations on both of those topics will continue. Regarding the decriminalization conversation, City Manager Craig Owens said city staff could bring back suggestions for a process to consider ordinance changes in the next week or two.

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