It's been three years since the late Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson promised to effectively decriminalize low-level marijuana offenses, but the Brooklyn DA's office continues to prosecute the vast majority of individuals caught with a small amount of pot, according to a new analysis from WNYC.
Using data from the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, the station found that roughly 82 percent of marijuana possession arrests were prosecuted in 2016, compared to 90 percent in 2014. While the borough's DA has repeatedly claimed that cases involving less than 25 gram of marijuana would be dismissed prior to arraignment, four out of five of those cases are still ending up in court.
Those who work in the Brooklyn court system said they were not the least bit surprised by the findings.
"Over the past couple years we've been seeing what feels like the same volume of cases coming through and the same racial breakdown—the vast majority being blacks and Latinos," said Scott Hechinger, senior staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, which represents about half the people arrested in Brooklyn.
When Thompson first instituted the policy, he called it a "reasonable response to the thousands of low-level marijuana arrests that weigh down the criminal justice system, require significant resources that could be redirected to more serious crimes and take an unnecessary toll on offenders." While he was widely praised by progressives across the country, both data and anecdotal evidence suggest the policy has a ways to go.
"As public defenders, we're used to hearing progressive proclamations from up high and starkly different realities on the ground," Hechinger told Gothamist. "Prosecutors have the ability through charging power to send a concrete message, but in 82 percent of cases they're still not doing that."
In many cases, the DA's office will dismiss the case soon after making a charge, leaving the defendant with an Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal [ACD], and a warning to stay out of trouble for six months to a year. But marijuana users still face repercussions when their case is dismissed, Hechinger noted. Students may have trouble retaining a scholarship with an open criminal court case, and surcharges can hurt people's credit scores.
The most serious consequences are faced by undocumented immigrants and those with green cards, as anyone prosecuted by a district attorney is required to submit their fingerprints, which are then passed along to federal authorities. So a low level marijuana offender whose case is ultimately dismissed may still face deportation over a supposedly decriminalized offense.
"The simple act of prosecuting alone allows immigrants to be on ICE's radar," said Hechinger. "There are all of these unintended consequences that come from a simple act of prosecution—why not just decline to prosecute?"
The Brooklyn District Attorney's Office did not respond to our request for comment.