HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Arrests for Pot Are Excessive
Pubdate: Mon, 16 Jul 2007
Source: Newsday (NY)
Copyright: 2007 Newsday Inc.
Author: Sheryl McCarthy
Cited: Break the Chains
Bookmark: (Marijuana)
Bookmark: (Policing - United States)
Bookmark: (Students - United States)


'I call it an epidemic of marijuana arrests. New York City has been 
on a binge of marijuana arrests for the last 10 years."

"I would call it a dragnet."

These are the conclusions of Harry Levine, a professor of sociology 
at Queens College, and Deborah Small, director of Break the Chains, a 
nonprofit drug policy reform group and a longtime advocate of 
changing the city's drug policies.

The two, who are studying the city's marijuana arrest policy, want to 
see the police give summonses to people who are caught smoking 
marijuana in public or with small amounts of marijuana on them, 
instead of the current practice of arresting them and jailing them overnight.

According to arrest data from the New York State Division of Criminal 
Justice Services, the number of arrests for marijuana possession 
skyrocketed from about 10,000 in 1996 to more than 50,000 in 2000. 
The arrests have tapered off somewhat since then, but remain high: 
33,000 arrests for marijuana possession last year.

Meanwhile, federal government figures show that between 1997 and 2006 
marijuana use among high school students and 19- to 28-year-olds rose 
only slightly.

Studies of marijuana arrests in New York City by Levine, researchers 
at the University of Chicago Law School, and the National Development 
and Research Institutes found that the overwhelming number of those 
arrested for marijuana possession were black and Latino males, even 
though national studies show that black and Latino high school 
students use marijuana at a lower rate than white students. However, 
the state criminal justice services officials say they have concerns 
about the reliability of the city's statistics on the race of those 
arrested because of how racial data are reported.

Marijuana arrests in the city surged in the late 1990s as part of 
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's quality-of-life policing strategy, and have 
continued under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But although early law 
enforcement efforts concentrated on heavily trafficked public areas 
like Central Park and midtown Manhattan, the efforts shifted to 
lower-income black and Latino communities, the studies say.

Camilla Price, chief of staff for State Sen. Ruben Diaz, whose 
district includes the Soundview section of the Bronx, says police in 
her district routinely swoop down on students as they leave school.

"Kids are going between Stevenson High School and several housing 
projects. They can be standing on the corner, and I've seen the cops 
with the kids against the wall, going through their pockets. Some 
kids have money or weed. They just harass the kids like there's no tomorrow."

Legal Aid attorneys I talked to confirmed that they're handling far 
more marijuana possession cases than in years past. One experienced 
Legal Aid attorney told me the police used to issue desk appearance 
tickets, but now they're putting them through the arrest wringer. 
"It's disturbing," says Seymour James, the attorney in charge of 
crime practice for the Legal Aid Society, "incarcerating them 
overnight when they could be given a summons. There is no reason for 
this ... for merely having a marijuana cigarette."

The police have considerable discretion in how they treat marijuana 
offenses. They can confiscate the pot, give the person a warning and 
tell them to go home. They can write a summons, which is similar to a 
traffic ticket and requires the offender to appear before a judge on 
a certain date. A summons can result in a fine or a dismissal. Or 
they can choose to arrest and handcuff the offenders, put them in a 
police car, take them to the station house, fingerprint and 
photograph them, and hold them in jail until they can be arraigned, 
which can sometimes take days. Many possession charges are dismissed 
if the person doesn't get into any more trouble in the next year. But 
it's ridiculously punitive to put people through a humiliating 
process for a minor offense.

"We're socializing black and Latino youths to the criminal justice 
system," Levine says. "We're teaching them how to be in the system." 
It's like telling them this is a rehearsal for a future of getting 
arrested and spending time in jail, Small says.

Police Department spokesman Paul Browne says the department is simply 
carrying out the law, and argues that there's been no major increase 
in such arrests during the last three years. But the number of 
arrests is still large, and has grown dramatically over time when 
there's been no similar increase in marijuana use.

Arresting people, especially teenagers, for smoking a joint, passing 
one to a friend, or having a small bag of marijuana needs to stop. 
Far more serious crimes are going on. And no parent of a teenager 
wants to see her kid thrown in jail and treated like a criminal for a 
minor transgression that could be handled with a summons. 
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