Economic impact felt in DA’s ‘weed whack’ of past convictions
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announced on Friday that he will vacate all past marijuana misdemeanor convictions in the borough, which could potentially help up to 20,000 people who have been convicted in Brooklyn since 1990.
This announcement does not legalize marijuana in the borough or state, which could lead to an estimated $700 million in tax revenue in the city and state, according to a report issued by NYS Comptroller Scott Stringer in May, but it could still end up helping ease the burden on taxpayers as it frees up resources in the DA’s office, the court system and the NYPD.
“We believe there are approximately 20,000 people in Brooklyn who have been convicted for marijuana and would be eligible for this benefit,” Eric Gonzalez said during a press conference on Friday at the Lenox Road Baptist Church in Prospect Lefferts Gardens.
“We have worked with the court system on how to deal with these warrants and convictions,” Gonzalez continued. “If you have a misdemeanor conviction for marijuana, I urge you to come forward. Everyone who comes forward will be given the opportunity to have an attorney to represent them for free.”
Under the program, anyone who was convicted of a low-level marijuana possession charge will be eligible to file a motion to vacate that conviction and dismiss the charges. A court appearance isn’t even necessary, Gonzalez said.
Interested individuals, who will be provided with free attorneys, are directed to get legal consultation during the DA office’s annual Begin Again program, which will take place this year on Sept. 21-22 at the Lenox Road Baptist Church on Nostrand Avenue. Similar community-based events will be held periodically throughout Brooklyn in the coming months.
There are exceptions to eligibility including cases where people have other convictions for violent felonies or sex offenses.
Gonzalez said that this program will allow his office to stop wasting resources and time on prosecuting nearly all low-level marijuana cases and instead will focus on the most egregious cases.
“So few of these cases would likely go to trial anyway, so this frees up resources earlier in the process,” said Michael Cibella, president of the Kings County Criminal Bar Association. “No longer are we going to waste time arresting people, fingerprinting them, waiting 24 hours for a judge, then only to have their cases dismissed. It frees up resources in the DA’s office, in the courts and, perhaps most importantly, it has removed the entire experience from a person’s life.”
Cibella added that it also makes New York’s system more equitable compared to other states that have laws in place to remove convictions, or seal them, after a certain amount of time.
A report that was released by the state Health Department in July said that the positive effects of marijuana legalization outweighed the negative ones. That 75-page report went further than Stringer’s report and estimated that tax revenue could be as high as $900 million for the city and state.
While taxpayers have to wait on that revenue, they will see relief as the New York Daily News estimated in a report published on May 18, 2017 that it costs the city an average of $118,000 per year to hold each inmate.
“To be clear, these convictions are not keeping us safer,” Gonzalez stressed at Friday’s press conference. “These convictions are the product of uneven enforcement and it’s time that we remedy this as we move forward to a new day in the city on how we enforce marijuana laws.”
Gonzalez said that as part of this program, his office will also throw out outstanding summons warrants and encouraged anyone with an open warrant to show up to Begin Again in two weeks.
This project is a part of Gonzalez’s 2020 initiative where he created a commission of nearly 70 experts in criminal justice from various backgrounds to implement reforms. He explained that this is just the first of 17 new initiatives that will be announced in the upcoming months.
“We’re doing everything tangible that we can do to make this a fairer system,” Gonzalez said.
Friday’s announcement is part of a trend by DA Gonzalez to lessen the impact of marijuana enforcement, particularly on communities of color.
In August 2017, he dismissed nearly 143,000 summonses warrants 10-years-old or older in an effort to help Brooklynites avoid unintended consequences of past low-level offenses. In May 2018, Gonzalez announced that his office would stop prosecuting most low-level marijuana offenses, and now he has moved to vacate old records too.
“These people have already paid the price and to continue this conviction in perpetuity does not make sense and is not fair,” he said.
Letitia James, who is running for attorney general for New York State, was at Friday’s press conference. She expressed full support for Gonzalez’s plan and said she hopes that the other boroughs will soon copy his move. She also expressed support for full legalization of marijuana in the state.
“Far too often, arrests for committing low-level offenses follow our young people — mostly black and brown men — throughout their lives, causing them to lose out on critical resources they need to survive,” said James. “This new initiative allows for individuals who have misdemeanor marijuana convictions to get the fresh start they deserve.”
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