New York Daily News: Robin’s Steinberg’s Op-Ed – The wrong way to reform NYC’s pot policing policy

Read our Executive Director Robin Steinberg’s op-ed on New York City’s new marijuana enforcement policy in New York Daily News:

New York City cannot solve the problem of discriminatory and overly-harsh marijuana policing by cramming more people into the overburdened summons court system.

This week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new policy aimed at reforming marijuana enforcement. Under the new policy, individuals that are found with less than 25 grams of marijuana will be charged with non-criminal violations and receive criminal court summonses. Individuals smoking marijuana in public will still be subject to arrests and possible incarceration.

Every year, tens of thousands of New Yorkers — the vast majority people of color — face jail time and staggering collateral consequences for engaging in an activity that a majority of Americans think should be legal: possessing and smoking small amounts of marijuana.

Possessing marijuana should not have life-altering consequences. The new marijuana arrest policy put forth by the city should be applauded for attempting to limit the number of people that face arrests and criminal charges for simple possession of marijuana.

But the city’s laudable intentions do not justify poor policy. And the new marijuana arrest policy fails on several fronts.

The new policy will shift the handling of marijuana cases from regular criminal court to the city’s overburdened summons courts. The city’s summons parts are chaotic environments where due process is scarce and institutional providers of indigent defense, which are more likely to screen for collateral consequences, are absent. Recipients of summonses routinely wait in line several hours before a judicial hearing officer, not a judge, handles their cases. Individuals that cannot afford attorneys are often given just seconds to consult with the court-assigned attorney before the judge demands to know if they will plead guilty.

That the city plans to rely on its summons courts to adjudicate marijuana summons is particularly troubling given the devastating collateral consequences that can result from convictions of even non-criminal marijuana violations. New Yorkers that have lived here for decades may suddenly be subject to deportation. Aspiring college students may lose access to federal financial aid. We must be vigilant in protecting New Yorkers from these devastating consequences for such petty conduct. Processing marijuana cases through the summons court system fails to do this.

Moreover, individuals will still suffer economic hardship on account of marijuana enforcement. Over the past summer, The Bronx Defenders interviewed over 160 individuals who had been arrested for marijuana possession. Fines, court fines, and lost wages combined to inflict serious economic harm upon these individuals and their families. Since people will still need to show up to court to respond to summonses, the city’s plan does nothing to address the economic harm brought about marijuana enforcement.

There is also reason to think that the new policy will actually lead to the increased policing of marijuana, a result that would be at odds with the Mayor’s campaign promises. Summonses are cheap, both for NYPD Officers and the court system. By making marijuana possession a summons-only offense, the city is making marijuana policing easier than ever. Unlike making an arrest, issuing a summons requires minimal paperwork and time. Decisions to issue summonses are rarely reviewed by supervisors. Yet, officers are often evaluated based on how many summonses they issue each month, creating strong incentives for officers to issue more and more summonses. The new approach will also allow the judicial system to accommodate more people than before, as summons courts process people in a rapid-fire, assembly line fashion.

The city’s new policy fails to even attempt to address a more fundamental problem: the racial disparities that have characterized marijuana enforcement in New York. From 2008 through 2013, 86% of people arrested for possessing marijuana “burning or open to public view” in New York City were either black or Latino; only 11% were white. This occurred despite the fact that white people and minorities use marijuana at similar rates. While making marijuana possession a non-criminal offense limits the extent of the harm caused by racially discriminatory policing, it does nothing to address the underlying unfairness to members of communities of color who are continually targeted for behaviors that are openly tolerated in other parts of the city. This sense of unfairness will only be exacerbated by the lack of due process individuals will receive in summons courts.

More ominous is the fact that this new policy obscures the measurement of racial disparities in marijuana policing. The NYPD does not record or make publicly available data related to the race of individuals receiving summonses. At a time when the public has subjected the NYPD to unprecedented scrutiny for its stop-and-frisk policies and its uses of force, we should question any policy that makes it harder to track race-related data.

None of this is to detract from the city’s intention of limiting the severity of marijuana policing. The city’s new policy recognizes the unjustifiable human, economic, and moral costs of jailing a person for even one day on account of simple marijuana possession. But good intentions are not enough. Until we abandon policing policies that disparately and unfairly target poor communities of color, as Broken Windows policing does, we will not be able to bring those intentions into reality.

Mayor de Blasio was elected with a clear mandate to reform the NYPD by voters that had expressed their outrage at racially discriminatory policing. But the city’s decision on how to reform its marijuana arrest policy was apparently made only in consultation with the District Attorneys of the five boroughs and as a result overlooks important concerns and collateral consequences. The city has taken a good first step, but it must now work closely with the communities that have borne the brunt of marijuana arrests on comprehensive policy changes that will substantially reduce unlawful and discriminatory arrests.

By Robin Steinberg

To read the original article click here.