Earlier this month, a watchdog group found that NYPD arrests involving low-level cannabis charges have spiked this year despite long-standing promises from the city to dial back arrests and prosecutions. Now the group has taken its criticism further. In a report published late last week, the Police Reform Organizing Project accuses New York district attorneys of racial discrimination in terms of how they choose to prosecute and sentence defendants.
According to data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, just over 27 percent of black defendants arrested for cannabis possession or sale were convicted and sentenced, PROP’s latest report found. Latinos were similarly affected, with nearly 26 percent of defendants being hit with convictions and sentences. But Asian and white defendants fared far better. They were convicted and sentenced 12.6 percent and 12 percent of the time, respectively.
Racial disparities were even more exaggerated in certain burroughs. In Manhattan, 43.8 percent of black defendants were convicted and sentenced. Only 16.5 percent of white defendants were.
PROP Director Bob Gangi, in an interview with Gothamist said the data underscore an already tarnished relationship between the NYPD and people of color:
“The DAs’ prosecutorial practices are reinforcing and rubber-stamping the racist arrest patterns of the NYPD in regard to low level marijuana infractions,” Gangi said. “92.55 percent of people the NYPD arrested last year for marijuana offenses were people of color — that is their own numbers.”
Critics like the Police Reform Organizing Project and others point to statements from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton that the city would resort to handing out more tickets and summonses in place of arrests. The Brooklyn District Attorney’s office said it would no longer prosecute most cases in which suspects were caught with less than 25 grams of cannabis.
But the group’s earlier report suggests those statements were largely lip service. Arrests for the possession or sale of small amounts of marijuana, PROP found, had actually increased by nearly 34 percent in the first quarter of 2016.
Accusations of racism by law enforcement in cannabis cases are nothing new. In nearby Boston, the American Civil Liberties Union recently endorsed a ballot measure to legalize adult-use cannabis in Massachusetts. The group said it sees legalization as an obvious step toward lessening the disproportionate impact of drug laws on people of color.
“Legalization is the smartest and surest way to end targeted enforcement of marijuana laws in communities of color, regulate who has access to marijuana, and eliminate the costs of enforcement while generating revenue for the Commonwealth,” ALCU Massachusetts Executive Director Carol Rose said in an endorsement statement.
A black person in Massachusetts was 3.9 times more likely than a white person to be arrested for cannabis possession in 2010, according to an ACLU report published in 2013. That’s despite the fact Massachusetts voters decriminalized possession of up to an ounce of cannabis in 2008. (A ballot measure legalized medical marijuana in 2012.)
No matter what color you are, legalization tends to lower your chances of criminal prosecution. In states where legalization has passed, such as Oregon and Colorado, cannabis arrests have plummeted for all demographics. But sharp racial disparities still exist. A black person in Oregon in 2014, a recent state report found, was still nearly 2.3 times as likely to be arrested as a white person. Legalization seems to be lessening the severity of cannabis sentences, but so far it still hasn’t managed to dole them out fairly.