New York rethinks marijuana prosecutions of low-level offenders

New York City, one of the most aggressive prosecutors of marijuana offenses in the US, is rethinking the practice, with an eye to avoid stigmatizing young black and Latino men.

Seth Wenig/AP/File
New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton (l.) and Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson speak to reporters at New York Police headquarters on April 30. Both men have held strong views on how to prosecute drug crimes: Mr. Bratton pioneered aggressive prosecution of even minor offenses in the Giuliani era, while Mr. Thompson reportedly wants to ease up on prosecution of nonviolent marijuana offenses.

When Alfredo Carrasquillo was busted last year for possessing a nickle bag of weed, he spent a weekend in jail before seeing a judge – pleading guilty to “possession in open view” in exchange for the time just served.

The nickel bag he possessed was about the amount of marijuana needed for one cigarette-size joint. And according to New York state law, he could carry up to 30 of these – or less than 25 grams – without criminal penalties, as long as they weren’t burning or “in open view.”

Still, New York is the most aggressive city in the most aggressive state in the US when it comes to marijuana arrests, and there were nearly 29,000 arrests like this in the city in 2013. And the local police tactic of stop-and-frisk has yielded hundreds of thousands of such low-level possession arrests over the past decade, as out-of-view nickle and dime bags – or even an overstuffed sandwich bag – become exposed during the course of a legal search.

For people such as Mr. Carrasquillo, this becomes a misdemeanor crime that will stay on his record.

“I missed three days of work, so I missed paid days,” he says. “I was still able to keep my job, but it didn’t look good for me moving forward cuz now I got this little stain of getting arrested.” Carrasquillo is currently a civil rights organizer with VOCAL NY, an advocacy group for drug law reform.

But across the country, this low-level stain is mostly borne by young black and Latino men in urban areas, even as their white counterparts use the drug more frequently. Nationwide, blacks are nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for low-level possession, even though more young white people aged 18 to 25 – the age group most often arrested – consistently report using the drug at a higher rate than their black and Latin counterparts, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2001-10.

This includes New York, where last year some 86 percent of its marijuana arrests were of men like Carrasquillo. So far this year, such arrests continue at a similar pace, with about 7,000 marijuana busts in the first quarter, according to police statistics.

Such arrests in New York continue amid a general sea change in public attitudes about marijuana use, especially for medical purposes. Twenty-one states now allow use of the drug for certain conditions, and Colorado and Washington State have decriminalized casual use of pot.

“This unfair application of the laws is having devastating long-term consequences for people of color,” says Gabriel Sayegh, state director for the Drug Policy Alliance in New York, which advocates sweeping changes in the war on drugs.

Activists had hoped to see a more immediate change to this disparity with the new administration of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), who had railed against what he sees as unfair application of both the police department’s stop-and-frisk tactic on minority communities and the kinds of low-level and future-affecting stains it leaves on the records of many young men.

But crime remains a delicate political issue in the city, and new Police Commissioner Bill Bratton was a pioneer in the kind of Compu-stat, “broken-windows” theory of urban policing that devotes more resources to high-crime areas and seeks to prosecute even the most minor offenses – a way to maintain a climate and expectation of order, and thus reduce more serious offenses.

“The major focus of these arrests are in major cities and big metropolitan areas,” says Harry Levine, a professor of sociology at Queens College in New York who tracks marijuana arrests. 

Indeed, before Commissioner Bratton’s first tenure in New York in the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the city arrested an average of about 2,100 people a year for possessing marijuana. Since 1995, the city has averaged 36,700, with a high of nearly 51,000 in 2011, declining to 29,000 last year.  

In light of the marijuana possession arrests continuing in the city, the Brooklyn district attorney, Ken Thompson, is drawing up plans to stop prosecuting such arrests. Last month, a memo from his office to the New York Police Department reasoned that such prosecutions require significant resources in time and effort – even while two-thirds of the cases are dismissed.

At the same time, the district attorney’s office is implementing the policy so that “individuals, and especially young people of color, do not become unfairly burdened and stigmatized by involvement in the criminal justice system for engaging in nonviolent conduct that poses no threat of harm to persons or property,” according to the Thompson memo, obtained by The New York Times.

"That's a common sense change we have to make," Mayor de Blasio told reporters in Albany in April, responding to Mr. Thompson's memo. "Certainly our focus has been, Commissioner Bratton's focus has been, going after serious crime, and we've moved away from some of the policies that I think were unfortunately creating a rift between police and community, but also taking a lot of time and energy away from addressing serious crime."

The Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance, echoed the idea this week, saying police and prosecutors are considering “uniform, better, and fairer” ways to handle marijuana arrests.

But both the mayor and commissioner have reacted cautiously since then, saying only they are open to discussions with the attorneys general.

“We are continuing those conversations, and we'll just have to wait to see what they eventually promulgate," Bratton said at news conference Friday. Officials are discussing alternatives to misdemeanor arrests, such as allowing young offenders to bypass the criminal justice system [and stains on their records] and attend short behavioral programs instead – like some who get traffic tickets.

New York could even serve as an example to urban areas in the rest of the country, activists say.

“We’re hoping with these actions that the people start getting processed in the system the same way,” says Mr. Sayegh. “But [the Thompson memo] will hopefully stir up a broader conversation in Brooklyn and the rest of the city about how to stop it.” 

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