Pubdate: Tue, 15 May 2018
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2018 The New York Times Company


The New York Police Department has claimed that more black and Latino
people are arrested for petty marijuana offenses because complaints
are more voluminous in neighborhoods where black and Latino people
predominantly live. That excuse was blown apart this weekend by a
Times investigation showing that the complaints about marijuana use do
not fully account for the racial arrest gap - and that, when
complaints were held constant, "the police almost always made arrests
at a higher rate in the area with more black citizens."

These findings reflect the extent to which marijuana use has been
informally legalized for white, middle-class citizens even as it has
remained punishable under the law for black and Latino New Yorkers.

Studies have repeatedly shown that people across most racial groups
use the drug at comparable rates. But the arrest rates for black and
brown citizens are sharply higher than they are for whites - mostly
because young men of color attract more scrutiny from the police.

Across New York City, for example, the police arrested black people on
low-level marijuana charges at eight times the rate of whites over the
last three years, with Latino people arrested at five times the rate
of whites. The race effect was especially clear in Brooklyn, where
officers arrested people for marijuana possession in the Canarsie
precinct, which is 85 percent black, at four times the rate of the
precinct that includes Greenpoint, where only 4 percent of the
residents are black, despite the communities producing marijuana
complaints by telephone at the same rate.

A similar picture emerged in Queens, where the police precinct
covering majority-black Queens Village had an arrest rate more than 10
times that of the precinct that serves Forest Hills, where blacks are
a tiny portion of the population, even though the rate of complaints
was the same.

These disparities are all the more indefensible because low-level
marijuana arrests have no public safety benefit. A 2017 analysis by
Harry Levine, a sociology professor at Queens College, debunked the
oft-heard claim that petty marijuana arrests get serious offenders off
the street, noting that 76 percent of those arrested for marijuana
possession during the previous year had never been convicted of any

But such arrests do immense damage to people who often have had no
other contact with the criminal justice system. The charges are
typically dismissed if the person stays out of trouble for a year, but
over that period, having an open court record can get the person shut
out of housing, job opportunities or entry into the armed services. In
addition, people who journey to court to answer charges that the
system intends to dismiss end up losing hundreds of dollars in wages.

Beyond that, the arrest disparities are strongly reminiscent of the
ones that persuaded a Federal District Court judge to rule in 2013
that the city's stop-and-frisk practice violated the Constitution by
illegally detaining and frisking minority citizens over a period of
many years. If the city isn't careful, it could find itself hauled
into court again - this time for marijuana arrests.

Speaking at a City Council hearing on Monday, Police Commissioner
James O'Neill said the department was "working to understand" what is
happening in "areas of our city in which marijuana enforcement appears
to be disproportionate to complaints received."

The State Legislature perpetuated a longstanding injustice several
years ago when it failed to make the public display of marijuana an
offense akin to a traffic violation, as opposed to a crime. Until
lawmakers come to their senses, district attorneys should lead the way
by refusing to bring these cases to court at all.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Matt