For years now, the city has said it will dial back arrests and prosecution of low-level marijuana cases: in 2014, Mayor de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bratton said the city would start handing out more tickets and summonses in place of arrests, and the Brooklyn District Attorney's office said it would no longer prosecute most cases in which people were caught with amounts of marijuana under 25 grams. But according to the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), it's all just lip service: earlier this month, the group found that arrests for the possession or sale of small amounts of marijuana had increased by nearly 34% in the first quarter of 2016, and in a new report out today, PROP is accusing the city's district attorneys of racially discriminatory practices in their prosecution of such offenses.
PROP obtained data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, and the group's analysis of those numbers shows that in 2015, 27.8% of black defendants arrested in low-level marijuana cases were convicted and sentenced, compared to 25.8% Latino defendants, 12.6% Asian defendants, and 12% white defendants. The conviction rate citywide was 25.1%.
The disparities revealed through PROP's analysis were even starker in some boroughs: in Manhattan, for example, 43.8% of black defendants were convicted and sentenced, compared to 16.5% of white defendants, and on Staten Island, it's 52.9%, compared to 26.5%.
"The DAs' prosecutorial practices are reinforcing and rubber-stamping the racist arrest patterns of the NYPD in regard to low level marijuana infractions," said Bob Gangi, director of PROP. "92.5% of people the NYPD arrested last year for marijuana offenses were people of color—that's their own numbers. There's already a stark racial bias, because the research shows that white people use and sell marijuana in equal or greater proportions to African-American and Latino people. The DAs, they reinforce that bias by prosecuting more severely African-American and Latino people, as compared to white people."
This report comes just a day after the Department of Investigation released its own findings that NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton's Broken Windows policing strategy—cracking down on issues such as public urination and excessive noise—doesn't correlate with a reduced rate in felony crime. But Gangi argued that while that report was significant, it didn't go far enough.
"They go very flabby when they talk about the racist nature of the Broken Windows practices," he said."They'll say that quality of life enforcement is practiced unevenly across the city, and they're in effect stating that there's a racial bias, but they don't call it out fully and they don't demand that it stop. When we put out these findings, it's to expose the racist bias among the police force, among the prosecutors, and among the courts, and to challenge the powers that be to stop these practices. Not to amend them, fix them, tinker with them—to stop them."
PROP also looked at the rates that the DAs offer Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal—the most lenient sanction available once a marijuana case is taken to prosecution, which allows charges to be dismissed and the case sealed so long as the defendant avoids contact with law enforcement for a year. They found that in Manhattan in 2015, 82% of white defendants in low-level marijuana cases received an ACD, while 50% of black defendants did, and in the Bronx, the breakdown was 81% compared to 62.7%. Citywide, 81.3% of white defendants received ACDs in 2015, compared to 68.5% of Latino defendants and 66% of black defendants. In every borough, white and Asian defendants received ACDs at higher rates than defendants of all other races, PROP found.
Two summers ago, Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson announced that he would effectively decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, dismissing any such cases prior to arraignment. That wouldn't include cases whose defendants were violent offenders, gang members, those with open warrants, or those smoking marijuana in public.
PROP analyzed the rates at which the city's DAs have declined to prosecute low-level marijuana arrests, and the group claims that the Brooklyn DA's office actually had the lowest rate: Thompson's office declined to prosecute just 0.4% of low-level marijuana arrests in 2015, compared to .5% in Queens, 1.6% in Manhattan, 3.1% in Staten Island, and 5.3% in the Bronx, according to PROP's analysis.
DA Thompson's office, however, says that PROP's analysis is a misrepresentation: the office screens all desk appearance tickets (which comprise the majority of low-level possession arrests), and, if they fall under the policy, declines to prosecute before the defendant's court appearance, and destroys the arrest records. As a result, those cases aren't reported to the State Division of Criminal Justice Services, so they were not included in the data that PROP analyzed. That would seem to account for the puzzling drop in decline-to-prosecute cases in Brooklyn from 2014 to 2015, as Thompson's policy went into effect: in 2014, the year the policy was announced, there were 843 cases, but last year, when it was fully in effect, there were just 23, as desk appearance tickets were no longer included in that figure. According to the raw data from DCJS, Thompson's office also dismissed 72% of low-level marijuana cases.
"This report is incomplete, misleading and misrepresents DA Thompson's progressive marijuana possession policy, which mostly applies to arrests processed as desk appearance tickets," a spokesperson for Thompson's office said. "In 2015, our office declined to prosecute over 900 of those DATs. The fact that the report completely omitted these stats and altogether ignored dismissals shows that its authors cherry-picked numbers that support their agenda and, by doing so, intentionally misled the public."
Gangi, in turn, argued that a desk appearance ticket—in which an individual is given a court date for arraignment, rather than being processed through central booking—is an arrest like any other, and should be included in the figures the the DA sends to the state. If the Brooklyn DA did indeed decline to prosecute some 900 cases, he said, it would be "a welcome thing, but it's not clear from what they're saying that is what they are in fact doing."
A spokesperson for the Manhattan DA's office said that "in low-level marijuana misdemeanor cases in Manhattan, prosecutors rely on a standardized process to guide case dispositions. This process does not take into account a defendant’s race or ethnicity, but does factor in a defendant’s previous arrest record. Adjournments in contemplation of dismissal or dismissals in the interests of justice are offered to all eligible first- and second-time arrestees charged with misdemeanor or violation possession of marijuana."
The Queens DA's office declined to comment, and neither the Bronx nor Staten Island DA's offices responded to our request. We'll update if they do.