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A Sensible Marijuana Policy In Brooklyn

The General

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Kenneth Thompson, the Brooklyn district attorney, served both justice and common sense this week when he announced that he would no longer prosecute most cases in which people are arrested or ticketed for small amounts of marijuana. Such cases are usually dismissed. But by keeping thousands of them from going to court at all, Mr. Thompson will have more resources to devote to fighting serious crime. The new policy will also prevent the young minority men who are most of those arrested from getting criminal records that deny them jobs, housing or entry into armed services.

New York has been wrestling with the marijuana enforcement problem for several decades. In 1977, for example, the State Legislature sought to cut down on arrests and relieve pressure on the court system by decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana. The law made possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana a noncriminal violation akin to a parking ticket, punishable by a $100 fine for the first offense. Possession of marijuana in public view was made a misdemeanor punishable by up to three months in jail and a $500 fine.

This worked temporarily. But New York City drove up the number of arrests from under 1,500 in 1980 to an astonishing 50,000 in 2011 by placing high priority on low-level arrests under what it called its zero-tolerance-policing policy. The arrests were advertised as a way of getting serious criminals off the streets. But state data have consistently shown that more than 70 percent of the people arrested on marijuana charges have no prior convictions of any kind. Moreover, the pattern of arrests is discriminatory. Even though whites and minorities are known to use marijuana at about the same levels, more than 85 percent of those arrested for the drug in New York City are black or Hispanic.

As the arrests escalated in New York City defense lawyers complained that the police were unjustly stopping young people and tricking them into "public view" violations by requiring them to empty their pockets. Gov. Andrew Cuomo tried to rectify the situation by suggesting that open possession of 25 grams or less be reduced from a misdemeanor, which involves arrest and a criminal record, to a violation. The Legislature unwisely rejected that proposal. Mr. Thompson does not intend to dismiss every low-level marijuana case. Only defendants with no criminal histories, or with minimal records, will be eligible. And cases in which people are caught smoking in public or around children will not be automatically thrown out.

The big improvement is this: Instead of reflexively prosecuting petty offenders, the district attorney will divert many of them to a court-supervised program where they can be referred to counseling, G.E.D. training or assigned to community service. Mr. Thompson said his goal was to use limited resources wisely and prevent young people from falling into the clutches of the criminal justice system for conduct that poses no threat to public safety. The point is to put their lives on a different path. Other district attorneys in the city should follow Mr. Thompson's lead.


News Moderator - The General @ 420 MAGAZINE ®
Source: Nytimes.com
Author: Editorial Board
Contact: Contact Us
Website: NYTimes
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