Monday, March 16, 2015

Some Windows Should Stay Broken: Time to End Marijuana Arrests in New York City

I just finished two weeks of Grand Jury service in Brooklyn. In some respects, the experience was quite positive. I was very impressed by my fellow Grand Jurors, who took their reponsibilities quite seriously, and were no rubber stamp for the prosecutors; thought many of the Assistant DA's were  capable and was positively impressed  by the racial diversity  of the police officers who testified  before us

However, one very negative aspect of the experience will remain with me a very long time and that is the number of marijuana arrests and prosecutions still taking place in Brooklyn, almost all of them occuring in communities of color and involving people who were working class and poor.

My fellow Grand Jurors and I thought that maijuana had been decriminialized in New York City. Apparently not. Fully one fifth of the cases that came before were  marijuana arrests, some of them involving buy and bust operations requiring large number of police officers; all of them involving defendents who were Black, Latino, and  Mideastern; none of them involving large enough quantities of the drug to make their possessor a major distributor.

Given that large numbers of college students and  middle class and wealthy residents of New York possess marijuana in the quantities that came before us, the discriminatory nature of these arrests and prosecutions leaped out at me and my fellow Grand Jurors. Not only did this seem to be a significant and expensive waste of police manpower, it clearly placed an unfair burden on young people living in Black and Latino neighborhoods, who are going to be arrested, prosecuted and possibly roughed up for actions that are left entirely alone on white middle class and upper class communities. 

Nothing could do more to exacerbate tensions between police and community residents, especially youth, than marijuana arrests requiring large scale police operations, especially since everyone knows they never take place in other sections of the city. They leave people who have no history of violence with criminal records; put some behind bars, and undermine a much needed source of income in communities where wages are low.

It is hard to see who gains from these arrests and prosecutions, other than developers seeking to invest in once poor communities, or cynical law enforcement officials who think that young people of color should be intimidated and contained.

Defenders of Police Commissioner Bratton will say that marijuana arrests are a logical extension of the "Broken Windows" theory of policing, which argues that arresting people for petty offenses- such as turnstile jumping or selling pot- will deter them from more serious and violent crimes

But the price of this kind of policing in terms of giving large number of young people criminal records, exacerbating police/ community tensions and providing a living example of discriminatory law enforcement is far too high to pay.

Some windows should stay broken. It is time to end marijuana arrests in New York City