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September 10, 2017

Notable data on marijuana case processing after Brooklyn DA pledge to limit prosecutions

Marijuana-cases-chart-07This WNYC piece provides some interesting data about local marijuana prosecutions in a part of NYC.  The piece's headline provides the essential highlights: "Brooklyn DA's Pledge to Reduce Marijuana Prosecutions Makes Little Difference." And here are some of the details:

In 2014, Brooklyn’s new District Attorney Ken Thompson made national headlines when he said his office would decline to prosecute low-level marijuana cases, so long as the defendant had no serious criminal record and wasn’t selling the drug.

Noting that two-thirds of these misdemeanor cases wind up being dismissed, Thompson said they did nothing to promote safety and wound up hurting people of color, in particular. “In 2012, over 12,000 people in Brooklyn were arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana,” he said, during his inauguration. “Mostly young black men.”

Thompson died of cancer last autumn. He was replaced (at his own request) by his first deputy, Eric Gonzalez, who continued the marijuana policy. But according to WNYC’s analysis, this supposedly groundbreaking change had less impact than many expected.

Using data from the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, WNYC found the Brooklyn DA was only slightly less likely to prosecute people for marijuana possession after Thompson took office in 2014. In 2010, almost 90 percent of arrests were prosecuted. That figure fell to almost 78 percent in 2014, and in 2016 roughly 82 percent of arrests were prosecuted. In other words, most people are still going to court because the Brooklyn DA only throws out about one out of every five low-level marijuana arrests.

“I expected to see the number to be higher,” said Kassandra Frederique, New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports marijuana legalization.

WNYC also found racial disparities among those who benefited most from the DA’s policy. Last year, the Brooklyn DA declined to prosecute fewer than 20 percent of misdemeanor marijuana arrests involving blacks and Latinos. By contrast, that figure was more than 30 percent for whites and Asians.

Marijuana-cases-chart-08Scott Hechinger, a senior staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, which represents low-income people, said he wasn’t surprised by any of this. “It still felt like the people who we were meeting were predominantly black and brown,” he said, when asked what changed after 2014. “And it still felt like an enormous waste of time, energy and money.”...

Gonzalez, the acting district attorney, has a theory for why most defendants are still prosecuted, like Iglesias. “One of the things about our marijuana policy was that it was limited to possession cases,” he explained in an interview with WNYC. “What we think may be happening is that a lot of these arrests is public smoking of marijuana.”

In other words, the district attorney's office still prosecutes those caught puffing a joint in a public place. That’s something many people didn’t fully grasp in 2014 when Thompson announced the policy change.

Both smoking and possession are classified by the state as the same misdemeanor (criminal possession in the fifth degree), the most common low-level charge. There was no way to separate smoking from mere possession from the data provided WNYC. (Several people WNYC interviewed at Brooklyn Criminal Court said they were arrested for smoking in public, including a 17-year-old boy who claimed the police nabbed him in a case of mistaken identity. All of the defendants we met were black or Latino and young.)

Gonzalez, who is running to hold onto his position this fall, said he was troubled by WNYC's finding that blacks and Latinos are more likely to be prosecuted. “I am committed to making sure my office does not contribute to racial disparities," he said. "If it takes me to be more aggressive in declining to prosecute more cases I’m willing to do that."...

Public defenders and legalization advocates now say there is only one way to correct the racial imbalance. They want the DA to stop prosecuting all marijuana cases. “This goes to a deeper need for us to talk institutionally about how the systems work for certain groups of people,” said Frederique.

But Gonzalez, the acting DA, argued that his policy is achieving positive results. Brooklyn declines to prosecute a greater share of cases than any other borough. He also said the DA’s policy put more pressure on the NYPD to make fewer arrests. Almost 17,000 people were arrested for low level marijuana possession in 2010. That number fell to 4,300 in 2016. “We’ve moved a long way,” he stated. “I’m committed to continuing to look at this issue and figuring out, can we have a system in which no one gets arrested for marijuana use where there’s no public safety value?”

Normally I would flag a story focused on marijuana over at my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog, but the case-processing and prosecutorial discretion issues raised here are surely of interest to sentencing fans.  And this post also provides an excuse to review some recent posts of note from MLP&R:

September 10, 2017 at 02:51 PM | Permalink

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