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Brooklyn DA: Prosecution of low-level marijuana cases down 98 percent

February 20, 2019 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez. Eagle photo by Mary Frost
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Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said last week that his office is no longer prosecuting low-level marijuana possession cases and is vacating more than 1,400 related warrants.

Over the past year, the number of simple marijuana possession cases prosecuted in Brooklyn was down by 98 percent, Gonzalez told attendees at a Community Board 2 meeting last Wednesday night.

“It costs my office about $2,000 a pop to process a marijuana arrest. That’s your tax dollars and it’s not keeping us safer,” he said. “I’d rather spend that $2,000 working on a sex crime or domestic violence case.”

Gonzalez said that looking over the statistics made it glaringly obvious that something was wrong with marijuana arrests in Brooklyn.

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“We looked at who was getting arrested for possession in Brooklyn. It was 93 percent people of color. In 2013, there were over 15,000 arrested in Brooklyn alone,” he said.

The late Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson announced in 2014 that he would decline to prosecute some cases involving marijuana charges.

“Under Ken Thompson’s leadership, he was able to cut that number down by about 10,000 fewer cases because he stopped prosecuting street possession cases. The office was still prosecuting smoking cases,” Gonzalez said. “This year, I said I was not going to prosecute any of those cases.”

There are still some times when smoking pot will get people in hot water, however.

“If someone is driving a car — smoking and causing a public safety risk — they have to be prosecuted, because they’re jeopardizing people’s lives,” he said.

Legalize marijuana, but…

Gonzalez said that he supports legalizing marijuana, but there are issues that need to be addressed first.

“How do we do this the right way?” he asked. “We’ve seen in other states that driving under the influence of marijuana has become a tremendous problem. I have three young boys, a 6-, 12- and 14-year-old, and I would not want to see them using,” he said. “How are we going to deal with young people who are smoking? What are we going to do with that?”

Another problem is that legalization is not necessarily a cure for drug violence.

“We thought in other places that legalization would end some of the violence,” he said. “But we’ve seen in some parts of the country where they have legalization that the black market can sell it cheaper and they still [have violence]. So there are still some remaining pockets of violence around.”

Gonzalez thinks part of the reason for that violence is that the small-timer is often left out of the legal marijuana business.

“Those who sell marijuana are big corporate entities, so communities of color weren’t given the opportunity to take part in the sale of marijuana,” Gonzalez said. “So in those communities, instead of having less violence, it stayed the same or even got worse in some cases, because there was less profit to be made.”

Vacating past convictions

In December, Gonzalez moved to officially vacate 1,422 outstanding misdemeanor warrants stemming from failure to appear in court on a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge, and he has created a program to erase past convictions for this offense.

His office is the only one in the state currently with a program to vacate previous convictions for simple possession, he said, though the Manhattan and Albany DAs are also looking to start one.

“People don’t need a lawyer” to have their convictions erased, he said.

Roughly 25,000 people in Brooklyn “are walking around with a marijuana conviction,” Gonzalez said. This can affect chances getting jobs or housing, he said, and, “If you’re an immigrant, this is a deportable offense.”

Brooklyn CLEAR

Gonzalez has also softened his approach toward harder types of drug use.

“I’m not really prosecuting low-level drug use,” he said. “In the old days … when people got arrested for possession of drugs, we put them into court. Sometimes they got treatment, sometimes they got jail, sometimes they got community service. Today we have something in Brooklyn called Brooklyn CLEAR.”

If someone gets arrested for possession of a controlled substance, he said, “We’ll send a peer drug counselor to the precinct. It doesn’t matter what time; could be two o’clock in the morning. The peer drug counselor will say, ‘DA Gonzalez is hoping that you want to get your life back on track, and he’s giving me seven days to get you into social services.’

“If they agree to do that, we’ll monitor them for a period of time, usually 30 to 45 days, to make sure that there’s substantial compliance with the program. If they do that, I’ll decline to prosecute the case.”

“It’s a harm reduction model, not a punitive model. I don’t believe in putting people in jail because they’re addicted to drugs,” Gonzalez said.

The number of prosecutions of low-level possession of a controlled substance dropped by about 10 percent in 2018, with 150 individuals having their cases dismissed without ever appearing in court, according to Gonzalez’ office.

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