On June 11, New York City public defenders released data demonstrating that district attorneys are continuing to prosecute “low-level” marijuana offense cases—even though they have publicly declared that they will discontinue doing so. Nearly 1,200 cases were brought in the first five months of 2019, according to their analysis
A group of collaborating organizations—the Legal Aid Society, the Bronx Defenders, Brooklyn Defender Services, New York County Defender Services and Neighborhood Defender Services Harlem—has made aggregate caseload data publicly available. The figures show that Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance is pursuing the highest number of unlawful marijuana possession charges: 325 in the first five months of 2019. Meanwhile Bronx District Attorney Darcey Clark is prosecuting 42 percent of all fifth-degree possession cases being brought across the five boroughs.
“Despite decriminalization efforts, hundreds of New Yorkers are still being arrested for low-level marijuana possession, which can trigger months and years of ICE detention and deportation, sever access to essential public benefits, and result in the loss of one’s children to foster care,” said Anthony Posada, supervising attorney of the Community Justice Unit at the Legal Aid Society.
In early 2018, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez renewed a 2014 commitment made by former borough DA Kenneth Thompson to end low-level marijuana prosecutions. In October 2018, DA Vance vowed to do the same in Manhattan, and in February 2019, DA Clark followed suit in the Bronx.
In demonstrating the emptiness of these pledges, the defenders’ released data confirms what activists have already known for months. On November 1, 2018, Court Watch NYC held a rally calling out the continued prosecutions and released a zine laying out the district attorney’s broken promises.
“This report is the first of many warnings to DAs Cy Vance and Eric Gonzalez that the people are watching,” declared volunteer Nora Rawn during the rally. “Empty promises aren’t enough.”
“It is no secret that our clients are primarily indigent people of color,” said Stan Germán, executive director of New York County Defender Services. “This unfair targeting creates a hardship for them that can lead to disruptions in employment, housing, or even to deportation. It’s time for New York to stop penalizing poverty.”