Pubdate: Sun, 29 Jul 2018
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2018 The New York Times Company
Authors: Steven M. Fulop and Jacob V. Hudnut


JERSEY CITY - Every city in America knows that it's a bad idea to
prosecute low-level, nonviolent marijuana offenses. It wastes scarce
municipal resources and does nothing to enhance public safety. What's
more, even though whites and blacks use marijuana at similar rates,
blacks are more harshly punished for it.

That's why, on July 19, marijuana offenses were effectively
decriminalized in Jersey City, New Jersey's second most populous city.

Prosecutors treated every marijuana case that day as a violation
instead of a misdemeanor, unless driving under the influence was
involved. We told our prosecutors to ask for no more than a $50 fine,
or just five hours of community service if the defendant couldn't pay
that fee. Instances like the absence of any public nuisance or a low
likelihood of re-offense would warrant outright dismissal. We also
stressed the importance of diverting people with an obvious drug
addiction toward social services.

The goal of the policy was to avoid the collateral consequences of a
conviction. Our assistant prosecutors approved. It meant less time
subpoenaing police officers for marijuana prosecutions that had zero
impact on public safety, and more time preparing for more
consequential prosecutions of assault, theft and domestic violence.

Police officers also gave us positive feedback. They felt free to set
aside enforcement of low-level, nonviolent marijuana offenses in favor
of spending more time keeping our city safe by pursuing violent
offenders. Brave young people don't enlist in police academies to
pursue pot smokers; they enlist to make a difference by keeping secure
the streets where their family, friends and neighbors live.

We were excited to propose a solution to a problem that affected the
entire state, not just our city. Each year, there are more than 25,000
arrests for simple marijuana possession in New Jersey. It is estimated
they cost the state more than $1 billion each decade in policing,
court operations, probation and jailing. Much of these costs fall on
municipalities, like Jersey City, that are already short on cash. Most
alarming is that people of color are three times more likely to be
arrested than white people despite similar rates of marijuana use.

The collateral consequences of marijuana possession are considerable.
Someone arrested for it could get a criminal record, have her driver's
license suspended, lose student financial aid, be banned from public
housing, have a harder time securing a job or potentially get deported.

Unfortunately, our policy had a very short life. A little over 24
hours after we put it in place, Gurbir Grewal, the attorney general of
New Jersey, voided it as an overreach of municipal prosecutorial
authority, though we believe that the policy was supported by laws and
legal precedent affording municipal prosecutors the discretion to
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If the realities of expensive and racially disparate marijuana
prosecution aren't "good cause," then what is?

We asked to meet with Mr. Grewal and persuaded him to convene a
working group that would advise him on a statewide directive to
clarify municipal prosecutors' discretion in marijuana cases. He also
agreed to adjourn all marijuana-related prosecutions in municipal
courts statewide for six weeks.

Meanwhile, the State Legislature is expected to vote on legalizing
marijuana by September. If the various measures related to the issue
pass, they could effectively end prosecution of marijuana possession
in New Jersey.

Now, the question is: What are the rest of the country's attorneys
general waiting for?

Prosecutors in New York City and Philadelphia effectively
decriminalized marijuana quite some time ago, and the sky didn't fall.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently embraced a state health
department report calling for legalization. In Pennsylvania, the
mayors of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have all but conceded that
legalization is inevitable.

Those states' attorneys general should also impose statewide
moratoriums on marijuana prosecution.

Who can name a good reason to continue burdening people of color with
life-altering criminal convictions for something whites do without the
consequence of conviction? Who with a straight face can argue that
towns should continue spending their overstretched local resources on
enforcement that does nothing to keep our streets safe?

In 1935 the Supreme Court declared that a prosecutor's job is more
than merely winning every case by racking up convictions; it also
includes seeing that justice is done. We in Jersey City followed that
principle on marijuana. The state attorney general did recently, too.
Every state on the verge of marijuana legalization should follow us
and do the same.

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Steven M. Fulop is the mayor of Jersey City, where Jacob V. Hudnut is
the chief prosecutor.
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