Brooklyn Daily Eagle: In low-level marijuana cases, prosecutions down but racial disparities up

Prosecutions for low-level marijuana possession are way down in Brooklyn in the first four months of 2019, compared to a year ago. AP Photo/Josh Edelson.

Prosecutions for low-level marijuana possession are way down in Brooklyn in the first four months of 2019, compared to a year ago. AP Photo/Josh Edelson.

Noah Goldberg
May 10, 2019

Low-level marijuana prosecutions are way down in Brooklyn compared to last year, but massive racial disparities in arrests for the charges persist citywide, according to data from The Legal Aid Society and The Police Reform Organizing Project.

Overall, low-level marijuana possession arrest numbers have been significantly down to start 2019 due to the NYPD’s 2018 policy of giving out summonses instead of arrests in most cases involving smoking in public. Despite the lower arrest numbers, black and hispanic New Yorkers were still arrested at disproportionately high rates for low-level possession throughout the city, according to data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, provided by the NYPD.

In the first three months of 2019, 294 black people and 147 hispanic people were arrested for marijuana possession in the fifth degree, making up 93 percent of arrests on the charge. Last year – during the same period – 2,006 black people were arrested for the charge. Despite the massive reduction in number of arrests, black people made up a higher percentage of the arrests for the charge in the first three months of 2019 – from 49 percent in 2018 to 62 percent in 2019.

Meanwhile, just 20 white people were arrested citywide in the first three months of 2019 for fifth-degree marijuana possession, which is charged for smoking in a public place or possessing more than 25 grams of marijuana. White people made up just 4.2 percent of people arrested, down from seven percent in the same period last year.

The Legal Aid Society, which provides counsel to about half of the city’s population living under the poverty line, only represented 63 defendants for unlawful possession of marijuana in the fourth and fifth degree in Brooklyn between January and April, compared to 828 during the same period in 2018, according to the organization’s statistics. Prosecutions for marijuana possession are down in all five boroughs compared to the first four months of last year.

A spokesperson for Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez cited the office’s 2018 policy of only prosecuting low-level marijuana cases when people pose a threat to public safety — by driving with burning marijuana in the car or creating a public nuisance by smoking on public transportation or in a schoolyard – for the drastic reduction in prosecutions.

“This helps the communities from not being subjected to over-criminalization for marijuana possession,” Anthony Posada, the supervising attorney of the Community Justice Unit at Legal Aid, said of the steep decline in prosecutions of low-level marijuana possession in Brooklyn. “It also helps the NYPD that is looking to build itself as a place where people can trust them and what they do.”

Legal Aid Clients Charged with Unlawful, Fourth- and Fifth-Degree Marijuana Possession

The data represents cases where the top charge was fourth degree, fifth degree or unlawful marijuana possession, The Legal Aid Society said.

“The decrease in prosecutions for low-level marijuana possession is a significant improvement from last year, however, until marijuana is legal, the NYPD will continue to use marijuana as a pretext to stop, frisk, and arrest Black and Latinx people at a disproportionate rate,” Jacqueline Caruana, senior trial attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services told the Brooklyn Eagle in a statement.

In its own data shared with the Eagle, Brooklyn Defender Services said they represented 24 people charged with fifth-degree marijuana possession in the first four months of 2019, as opposed to 379 in the same period in 2018.

For fourth-degree marijuana possession – which is charged when someone possesses between two and eight ounces of the drug – Brooklyn Defender Services actually represented more defendants between January and April in 2019 than the year before.

The group represented 16 people in the first four months of 2019 and only nine in the same time last year for fourth-degree marijuana possession.