Editorials, Opinion

City council should rethink litter amendment

Sharps boxes cheaper than jail time

Morgantown City Council is strongly considering an amendment to the city’s littering laws that would create a $500 fine or a 30-days-in-jail penalty for sharps (such as needles) and other hazardous or infectious materials (such as something contaminated with blood), as well as specifying that such materials cannot be disposed of in a public trash can.

We understand that council is trying to clean up downtown. The trash and litter have gotten out of hand in general, and that’s not to mention any used needles that might be left lying around. Needles and other contaminated items in public spaces are potentially dangerous, and they do need to be addressed.

But is this the most effective approach?

Consider who this amendment targets: Drug users, who are also likely low-income and/or homeless. It’s unlikely this demographic can pay the half-a-grand penalty, which means an alleged offender faces jail time of up to 30 days.

As far as impacts on the individual goes, time in jail could force a person to get clean, and, at the time of their release, they could be connected with services to help them stay sober and get back on their feet. On the other hand, a jail sentence could just mean a prolonged withdrawal, rather than a recovery, interfere with any employment or other opportunities the person already had and make it more difficult to secure employment in the future.

There’s an expense for taxpayers as well: It costs between $48 and $65 per day to house someone in a regional jail. (Starting this past July, per diem fees are prorated, hence the cost range.) Counties are responsible for paying the per diem for anyone going through the magistrate court, while cities are on the hook for anyone charged in municipal court. But either way, those are our tax dollars. And if someone charged under the proposed litter ordinance serves the max sentence, that costs taxpayers between $1,440 and $1,950.

Locked sharps containers, however, cost as little as $15 for a five-quart container. 

It would be far more cost-effective to buy sharps containers and install them where the most needle trash is found than to imprison violators who can’t afford to pay the fine.

Yes, there would be a high-ish upfront cost and a regular fee for collection and disposal, and sharps containers can cost over $200, depending on the maker and the style. However, there are plenty of options in the mid-range that can still make buying multiple locked boxes cheaper than housing one individual in jail for multiple days. According to information from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Houston Airport System installed sharps containers in 69 public and employee restrooms for a startup cost of $2,000 (one 30-day stint in jail) and a maintenance cost of $300 per year (or the cost of one week in jail). 

We all want to see our downtown flourish — for it to be clean and safe and welcoming. But a punitive littering law is unlikely to solve the problem at hand, instead creating potentially more issues and generating higher costs. Council should rethink its approach.