An Ineffective Way to Fight Crime

Published: November 22, 2012


More than a year has passed since Commissioner Raymond Kelly of the New York Police Department issued a memorandum ordering officers to follow a 1977 state law that bars them from arresting people with small amounts of marijuana unless the drug is being publicly displayed. Even so, a lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Society in June and pending in state court makes the case that the police are still arresting people illegally in clear violation of both the commissioner’s directive and the state law. More than 50,000 possession arrests were made last year.

Law enforcement officers have often described these arrests as a way of reining in criminals whose other, more serious activities present a danger to the public. But state statistics show that of the nearly 12,000 teenagers arrested last year, nearly 94 percent had no prior convictions and nearly half had never been arrested.

Now a new study by Human Rights Watch further debunks the main premise of New York City’s “broken windows” law enforcement campaign, which holds that clamping down on small offenses like simple marijuana possession prevents serious crime and gets hard-core criminals off the streets.

The study tracked about 30,000 people arrested for marijuana possession in 2003-4 — none of whom had prior convictions — for periods of six-and-a-half to eight-and-a-half years. The study found that about only 1,000 of them had a subsequent violent felony conviction. Some had misdemeanor or felony drug convictions, but more than 90 percent of the study group had no felony convictions whatsoever. The report concluded that the Police Department was sweeping “large numbers of people into New York City’s criminal justice system — particularly young people of color — who do not subsequently engage in violent crime.” This wastes millions of dollars and unfairly puts people through the criminal system.

In 1990, fewer than 1,000 people were arrested for minor possession. The 1977 law was intended to stop police officers from jailing young people for tiny amounts of marijuana and to allow prosecutors to focus on more serious crimes. It made possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana a violation and punishable by a $100 fine for the first offense. To discourage open use of the drug, however, lawmakers made public display a misdemeanor punishable by up to three months in jail and a fine of $500.

In the past decade, civil rights lawyers have complained that police officers were arresting and charging people with public display of the drug, even though officers had found the contraband while rifling people’s pockets or after tricking them into exposing it.

Those arrested for minor possession — even if their cases are eventually dismissed — can endure grave collateral consequences. They can lose job opportunities, access to housing and can be turned away when applying for military service. About 80 percent of those arrested are black or Hispanic. This has led the legal scholars Amanda Geller and Jeffrey Fagan to label the city’s marijuana campaign “a racial tax” because it takes a heavy toll on minorities, while bringing little or nothing in the way of crime reduction.

The Legislature could go a long way toward ending unfair prosecutions by adopting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to make public display of a small amount of marijuana a violation, unless the person was smoking the drug in public.

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