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Brooklyn DA: Low-level marijuana prosecutions down 91 percent

July 27, 2018 By Rob Abruzzese, Legal Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez’s office has tried to adjust its marijuana policy to account for studies that show large racial discrepancies in police enforcement. Eagle file photo by Rob Abruzzese

The mayor and the police commissioner announced in June that the city will have a new policy when it comes to marijuana arrests, but Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has attempted to lead the way on the issue.

His office announced on Friday that low-level marijuana prosecutions have dropped by more than 91 percent between January and June of this year. Gonzalez said that due to the success of the new policy that the Brooklyn DA’s Office will continue to decline to prosecute most marijuana cases.

“Aggressive enforcement and prosecution of personal possession and use of marijuana does not keep us safer, and the glaring racial disparities in who is and is not arrested have contributed to a sense among many in our communities that the system is unfair,” Gonzalez said. “This in turn contributes to a lack of trust in law enforcement, which makes us all less safe. 

ABOVE: Taken together, the number of cases that were accepted for prosecution this year declined from 349 in January to 29 in June – a drop of 91.6 percent. Of the cases that were prosecuted between January and June 2018, 84 percent resulted in a dismissal (by either an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal or by other means), according to the Brooklyn DA’s Office. Graph courtesy of the Brooklyn DA’s Office 

“That is why, earlier this year, we expanded our existing non-prosecution policy to include smoking cases,” he continued. “That pilot policy proved to be effective in dramatically reducing the number of low-level marijuana cases processed in court, freeing resources and strengthening trust in the justice system. I intend to maintain this approach and to only prosecute the most egregious offenses, which will help ensure fairness and equal justice.”

This change in policy is a response to studies that show that people of color are much more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession despite the fact that white people are more likely to partake. One study conducted by the Police Reform Organizing Project found that people of color are 90 percent more likely to be busted for possession in New York City from January to June of this year.

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NYPD executives have insisted that they are merely responding to calls of complaints about marijuana as the reason certain neighborhoods are policed more heavily than others. However, a report published by Politico in March found no such correlation in the data.

For instance, the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of East Harlem received 304 marijuana complaints and had 683 arrests. Meanwhile, the predominantly white neighborhood of the Upper East Side had 123 complaints and only 63 arrests, according to Politico.com.

To combat this racial disparity in Brooklyn, Gonzalez’s office has gradually expanded its policy of not prosecuting low-level cases to include people smoking in public.

The Brooklyn DA’s Office still prosecutes marijuana cases that it considers a threat to public safety, such as driving while smoking or when people are “creating a genuine nuisance,” such as smoking on the subway or in a school yard where kids may be exposed. It will also prosecute cases involving violent criminal activity.

The DA’s Office pointed out on Friday that it began to implement its policy before the city and the NYPD announced that it would make changes. It predicted that once NYPD implements its new protocols, the number of cases prosecuted will drop further.

The DA acknowledged that past marijuana cases, which would no longer be prosecuted under his new guidelines, could still have consequences today. He explained that his Justice 2020 Initiative is working on a new program for vacating and sealing some past marijuana convictions.

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