Strong Show Of Support For DA Ken Thompson's Plans To Halt Prosecution Of Low-Level Marijuana Possession

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Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson

[New York Justice]

Brooklyn elected officials, community groups, and advocates rallied on the steps of Borough Hall to support District Attorney Ken Thompson’s proposal to stop prosecuting people arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

A memo outlining DA Thompson’s proposal, shared with the press, states that when the police make a low-level marijuana arrest and the defendant has no criminal record or a minimal criminal record, “there will be a presumption that such case will be immediately dismissed.” With this bold and smart initiative, DA Thompson is using his discretionary authority as the top law enforcement officer in Brooklyn to refocus limited law enforcement resources on serious public safety issues, address and reduce unwarranted racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and ensure that Brooklyn residents are no longer saddled with lifelong arrest records for simple possession of marijuana.

New York State decriminalized personal possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1977, finding that arresting people for small amounts of marijuana "needlessly scars thousands of lives while detracting from the prosecution of serious crimes.” Yet marijuana in “public view” remains a misdemeanor, and over the last fifteen years, marijuana possession has become a top law enforcement priority, with nearly 600,000 people having been arrested under this provision in New York City, often as the result of an illegal search or as the result of a stop-and-frisk encounter when police demand an individual “empty their pockets,” thus exposing marijuana to public view.

Community demands for change and bipartisan support for reform in New York City and Albany have led to a drop in arrests in recent years. Yet low-level marijuana possession arrests remains one of the leading arrests in New York City: last year, there were nearly 30,000 such arrests, the overwhelming number of which were Black and Latino men. Based on first-quarter data obtained from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, NYPD is currently on track to make nearly as many marijuana possession arrests in 2014 as it did in 2013, with similarly shocking racial disparities.

Even though government studies show that young white men use marijuana at higher rates, approximately 85% of those arrested are Black and Latino – mostly young men. According to a report released last year by the ACLU, Brooklyn has one of the highest rates of racial disparities for marijuana possession arrests in the nation. The human and fiscal costs of these practices are staggering. Those arrested are saddled with a permanent arrest record that can follow them for the rest of their lives – easily found on the internet by banks, schools, employers, landlords, and licensing boards.The ACLU report found that the costs of these arrests to taxpayers is hundreds of millions of dollars every year – a profound waste of taxpayer money and scarce law enforcement resources.

There is broad national and local support for fixing broken marijuana laws that lead to biased outcomes. Last year, President Barack Obama told The New Yorker that “it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.” In Albany, one proposal -- supported by Governor Andrew Cuomo and sponsored by Brooklyn Assemblymember Karim Camara and Brooklyn Senator Daniel Squadron – would fix the law by making “public view” a violation (similar to a traffic ticket) instead of a misdemeanor, but the Senate has refused to act, leaving New Yorkers with a broken and unjust law. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to end the marijuana arrest crusade; advocates are optimistic that the Mayor will announce a plan soon.

Justice delayed is justice denied, and thus DA Thompson is exercising his authority to take immediate steps at the local level to reduce the number of arrests for low level marijuana possession and the racial disparities they cause. The proposal by DA Thompson is a major step forward in addressing the biased, wasteful, unjust marijuana arrest crusade in New York City and will hopefully spark action by other DA’s in New York City and around the nation. As outlined in the reported memo, the DA’s proposal will ensure 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.” The proposal would not prevent police officers from issuing a summons or even making an arrest. Today, elected officials, community members and advocates applauded the DA’s leadership.

Alfredo Carrasquillo, a Brooklyn resident and past victim of wrongful marijuana arrests and an organizer with  VOCAL-NY,  said: “DA Thompson's decision to end prosecutions for many low level marijuana offenses is another important step in rebuilding community trust in New York's criminal justice system after years of racially biased 'stop and frisk' policing. We hope that other DAs will follow Brooklyn's lead and adopt similar policies that will ensure fairness, save money, and allow prosecutorial resources to be used where they matter most."

Brooklyn Assemblyman Karim Camara, Chair of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus, said: "I applaud DA Thompson for taking this bold, yet common sense step toward reforming our criminal justice system. For far too long politics have come before policy when it comes to what’s best for New York. Now, Brooklyn will lead by example and show the rest of the state that police resources are better used addressing matters of public safety, rather than wasting valuable police time and money processing low level marijuana arrests. Moreover, it’s about time that we, as a society, recognize that low level marijuana arrests directly impact the lives of individuals and their communities. I will continue to advocate for drug policy reform, similar to what DA Thompson is doing in Brooklyn, on a statewide level."

Brooklyn State Senator Daniel Squadron, said: "There's no question that today's marijuana laws have an unfair impact. That's why I applaud Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson for ending prosecutions of people arrested for small amounts of marijuana and thank the Drug Policy Alliance for their tireless advocacy on this issue. I call on the State Senate to act now and pass legislation decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana in public view across the state." 

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, said: “This is a good decision by DA Thompson.  I commend him for taking this bold step to stop criminalizing our young people. The policy of arresting young people for carrying a small amount of pot clogged our legal system and diverted resources from pursuing violent crime, which the DA should and, thankfully, is now doing.”

Brooklyn State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, said: “I am happy and proud to support Brooklyn's new DA Ken Thompson's proposal to not prosecute low-level marijuana possession. I have long advocated for this change. This has been a waste of our law enforcement personnel's time and an unreasonable intrusion into people's lives. As America re-assesses our attitude towards low level drug usage, Brooklyn can show what a balanced approach can produce!”

Brooklyn Assemblyman Walter T. Mosley, said: “I am proud to stand with a strong coalition of community members, advocacy groups and my colleagues in government to voice full support of DA Thompson’s proposal to stop prosecutions on the possession of small amounts of marijuana. We are at a pivotal moment in our city, with a unique opportunity to work towards ending years of unjust arrests and the needless criminalization of thousands of New Yorkers. Through the leadership of DA Thompson change starts now -- right here in Brooklyn!”

Brooklyn City Council member Jumaane D. Williams, said: “I applaud DA Ken Thompson’s proposal to stop prosecuting people arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana. I am happy to see efforts being made to fix a broken system that has left hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers behind bars. Arresting people for low level possession has long been a way that young men of more color have become stigmatized for engaging in nonviolent conduct that poses no threat or harm to our community. Further, we know that marijuana use is at minimum proportional across racial lines, yet black and brown residents suffer from a majority of the arrests, though many studies show that whites use it at a larger proportion. Momentum has also grown on this issue since more than 30 years ago, New York State passed legislation reducing the penalty for possession 25 grams or less to non-criminal violation. It is long past time that we end this disparity, and this proposal brings us one step closer to ending that stigma and one day legalizing marijuana in New York.”

Brooklyn City Council member Brad Lander, said: “The number of low-level arrests for marijuana in our city have soared in the recent decades along with the rise in the use of stop-and-frisk.  And while these arrests have recently gone down, the decline has not been as great as the reduction in the use of stop-and-frisk that we have seen.  The practice of arresting tens of thousands of mostly young people takes up countless hours of police manpower, clogs our court systems, and most importantly has a tremendous negative impact on the future of our young people. This is a move in the right direction.”

Brooklyn City Council member Laurie A. Cumbo, said: “I thank Kings County District Attorney Ken Thompson for his leadership and new approach to increase public safety without the criminalization of youth, who have no criminal record or a minimal criminal record, on low-level marijuana offenses. Communities of color are disproportionately affected by this current practice, which can often change the course of direction in a young person’s life. This is a step in the right direction to provide an alternative that will alleviate the number of young people who go through the criminal justice system. “

Brooklyn City Council Member Stephen Levin, said: “I applaud District Attorney Thompson for ending the prosecution of low-level marijuana possession cases in Brooklyn. These non-violent, low-level prosecutions have unfairly targeted young minority men, diverted valuable resources, and have detracted from our mission of keeping New Yorkers safe. This is a smart policy that will make for a safer Brooklyn.”

Chino Harden, Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, said:  “Brooklyn DA Thomson’s efforts around not prosecuting low levels of marijuana arrests are commendable and a small step in the  right direction of justice for all not for some. But the fact still remains that low levels of marijuana possessions (under 25 grams) is not a crime that should even make it to the court system, simply because it's not a crime, it's a violation. Police commissioner Braxton knows that the 1977 marijuana reform act lays this out in plain English. It's time for NYPD to be the example and follow the law but more so it’s time for NYC elected officials and  law enforcement agencies to come together and work in the common interest of all New Yorkers because when they don't it's not just New Yorkers of today who suffer, it's New Yorkers of tomorrow who suffer as well.

New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman, said: "Brooklyn's district attorney has recognized that arresting and jailing thousands of people for possessing small amounts of marijuana does not make safer streets. It only needlessly disrupts people's lives and fosters distrust between the police and the communities they are sworn to serve. But New York's marijuana arrest crusade goes way beyond Brooklyn's borders. In all corners of the state, police are targeting people of color for marijuana possession arrests. New York needs to update its laws to bring justice and common sense to drug enforcement in our state."

Gabriel Sayegh, New York State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said: “When he was running for office, DA Thompson said he was going to deal with the problem of racially biased marijuana arrests. And now he’s doing it – this is powerful step toward  restoring fairness and equity in the criminal justice system. There’s a growing national movement to end the failed war on drugs and enact sensible drug policies. Brooklyn is leading the way, and now it’s time for the rest of the City and for Albany to act.” 

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