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Brooklyn DA candidates respond to racial disparities in marijuana arrests

Kings County District Attorney Charles J. Hynes. AP photo

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Black people in Brooklyn and Manhattan are almost 10 times more likely than white people to be arrested on low-level marijuana possession charges, and similar racial disparities can be seen around the largest cities in upstate New York, a civil rights group charged Thursday.

The New York Civil Liberties Union’s analysis of statewide low-level arrests and summonses for violations and misdemeanors from 2010 came two days after its parent organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, reported that blacks nationwide face marijuana arrests more than whites even though marijuana use by both races is similar.

The challengers for Brooklyn District Attorney have each expressed concern with the racial disparity outlined in the NYCLU’s report.  "Too many young people of color are being arrested for low-level drug charges that leave a permanent stain on their records for what should be a violation,” candidate Ken Thompson said in a statement.  

For candidate Abe George it is “abundantly clear … that marijuana has become the disingenuous predicate of law enforcement to harass, stop, frisk and arrest a disproportionate number of minority citizens in Brooklyn.”

Current Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes commented that his office initiated the Brooklyn Racial Justice Task Force, a small pilot program, to address marijuana cases involving 16- and 17-year-olds.

While each candidate expresses some degree of outrage at the way minorities are treated for possession charges, the topic of marijuana has been a slightly contentious topic of debate in the race for Brooklyn’s head prosecutor.

Last week, at a candidates’ forum sponsored by Democratic Leaders for the 21st Century, George and Hynes debated positions on minor marijuana possession charges. At one point in the debate, George called Hynes out to be a “liar” as to his office’s prosecution of cases involving small possessions of marijuana. Hynes’ replied that George was merely being “rude.”

“Hynes claimed … that he does not prosecute marijuana misdemeanors,” George’s campaign noted.  “Hynes is either mischaracterizing his record, or has no idea about what is happening in his own office.”  

George promises to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana in public view by treating those offenses as non-criminal violations rather than as misdemeanors – a point of view that each candidate appears to agree on.

For Thompson, marijuana “arrests are clogging our court system and diverting police and prosecutorial resources from serious crimes that are on the rise under D.A. Hynes' watch.”  Thompson believes the problem will be alleviated with the passage of proposed legislation that would make the penalties for private and public possession of small amounts of marijuana the same.

Currently, private possession of marijuana is a violation with a maximum fine of  $100 for the first offense. Public display of marijuana, on the other hand, is a misdemeanor.  

In 2011, NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly issued a memo to correct that discrepancy.  He reminded police officers that "[a] crime will not be charged to an individual who is requested or compelled to engage in the behavior that results in the public display of marihuana," during stop-and-frisks.

Police officers, during stop-and-frisks, may force people to remove items from their pockets or open their bags, thus forcing them to display amounts of marijuana that otherwise would not have been in public view.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed legislation in 2012 that would make the penalties for private and public possession of small amounts of marijuana the same, thus making public possession a violation instead of a misdemeanor.  

In the same year as the Kelly memo was released, Hynes’ office asserts, “We declined to prosecute and dismissed in court over 71 percent of cases that would be affected by the new law. We have taken steps to ameliorate the effects of marijuana laws as they currently exist.”

Police have disputed the notion that black people were being targeted. NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said marijuana arrests were down 32 percent this year on top of a 22 percent decline last year. He said while police enforce the law everywhere, enforcement is more focused in poor neighborhoods with the most violent crime.

The NYCLU report is a “wake-up call,” said Thompson. "Brooklyn's growing racial disparity in marijuana arrests is a wake-up call for comprehensive reform."

And for each candidate, it is proof that Brooklyn needs strong leadership in the DA’s Office.

June 7, 2013 - 3:00pm


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