On any given day, at least 135,000 men and women sit idle behind bars on simple drug possession charges.
Nearly two-thirds of those are in local jails. Most have not been convicted of a crime. They’re in a cell, waiting for their day in court which may be months — or years — off since they can’t afford bail.
Clevon Citron was arrested for holding half-an-ounce of pot during a 2011 traffic stop in Queens. Since he had convictions for two other offenses, he was sentenced in 2013 to seventeen years in prison. Labeled a “habitual offender” by the courts, Clevon is still appealing his conviction to the New York Supreme Court.
Clevon’s story is about the waste of human lives, taxpayer money, arrest and incarceration for personal drug use. Clevon could be free making money and providing for his family.
Even before a federal judge told New York City to begin scaling back its stop-and-frisk scheme in 2013, the number of marijuana arrests, among Latinos and blacks, were more likely to be detained for smoking in public than whites.
The marijuana arrests had no public safety benefit and only accomplished causing lasting damage to people who otherwise had no contact with the justice system. Even today, charges are often dismissed if people stay out of trouble for a year. But twelve-months can be a long time, and during that timeframe, persons can be refused jobs, housing and even enlistment in the military.
The city is trying to minimize arrests, but it could do more. District attorneys can pave the way by refusing to prosecute these cases.
Public opposition to pot arrests showed up in the 1970s when well-off families complained to legislators their children were being ruined by petty arrests. The lawmakers barred law enforcement from arresting persons for tiny amounts of pot — unless it was smoked in public. Since then, black and Latino neighborhoods have been hit the hardest by the enforcement policy.
Bill de Blasio, who became mayor in tk, established policies reducing the number of persons each year for small amounts of pot. Instead of being taken to jail, many persons with small amounts were to be given a summons and permitted to go on their way. Now, the de Blasio administration sees about 20,000 pot arrests each year — half of what the numbers were during the Bloomberg years.
Longstanding racial differences have remained according to Harry G. Levine, a sociology professor at Queens College. Blacks and Latinos still make up just half of the populace, but they make up 85% of those detained for low-level pot offenses.
New York City law enforcement argues the arrests occur in places where it receives complaints. The study says differently. According to Levine, arrests are skewed along racial lines everywhere in the city.
African-Americans are arrested, according to the study, at 15-times the rate of whites in Staten Island and Manhattan and 7-times the rate of whites in Queens. The differences indicated by the analysis are striking in areas where blacks make up a small proportion of the census.
“Zero tolerance” policing still has its supporters despite being used as a net to corral more dangerous offenders. However, 75% of those arrested in 2016 had never been convicted of a crime.
New York missed the opportunity to correct the problem in 2012 when a bill which would have made a marijuana offense equitable to traffic violations — instead of a criminal offense — died before getting passed in the State Senate and House.