No More High Crimes and Misdemeanors?

While fired cop Derek Chauvin was convicted on charges for murdering George Floyd, several other shootings of unarmed black folks by cops has driven protestors back into the streets, and the systemic problems plaguing our nation’s criminal justice system are once again laid bare. A steady stream of police body cam footage and amateur videos has shed light on catastrophic contacts between police and civilians, especially those who are black or brown.

Changing the outcomes of those interactions requires multiple strategies and closer to home, Nassau and Suffolk counties recently submitted reform plans to New York State for building trust and increasing transparency in their police departments, pledging more inclusive recruitment, better training, and improved civilian complaint handling. Crafted with stakeholder input, the written plans were required by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s June 2020 executive order and tied to future state funding.

Another recent move by lawmakers in Albany – the legalization of recreational marijuana – has been hailed by pro-pot advocates as a strategy that will dramatically reduce the overall number of police contacts, thereby diminishing the possibility of violent encounters, advancing fairness in law enforcement and promoting social justice.

That would be good, because according to state data compiled by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), there were more than 900,000 marijuana arrests in New York between 2000 and 2018, 82% of which were among Blacks or Hispanics, despite similar rates of marijuana use among whites. About 47,000 of those arrests were on Long Island, where Blacks were seven times more likely to be arrested than whites. Beyond the trauma that accompanies being placed in handcuffs and into a police car before being fingerprinted and photographed, low-level marijuana arrests create permanent criminal records that can be uncovered by employers, landlords, schools, credit agencies and banks. Getting a school loan, landing a decent job, maintaining a business or professional license, securing housing, and even adopting a child gets harder – for already disadvantaged populations.

Voting to make New York the 15th state to legalize weed, Democratic lawmakers touted the fact that 40% of the net tax revenues from pot sales will be earmarked for social equity purposes, that people convicted of marijuana-related offenses that are no longer illegal will have their records automatically expunged and that those with past convictions will be able to participate in the new legal market.

That’s more than other states have done and perhaps a more comprehensive approach will better reduce stubborn disparities.

Washington legalized marijuana in 2014 and a study five years later found that while overall marijuana arrests dropped markedly, relative disparities grew from a rate among African American 2.5 times that of Whites to a rate that jumped 5 times higher.

In Oregon, which legalized marijuana in 2015, an analysis found that cannabis allegations increased 28% among all youth, with rates highest for American Indian/Alaska Native and black youth. Pre-legalization rates for black youth were double that of whites, but the disparity fell after legalization. For American Indian/Alaska Native youth, rates were higher than whites before legalization, and this disparity remained unchanged. Racial disparities also persist in Alaska, which legalized marijuana in 2015, in Washington DC where 90% of those arrested for marijuana offenses are Black and in Colorado where a 2016 study found that the marijuana arrest rate for African Americans is almost three times that of Whites.

That fewer people of all races across the US are being arrested for marijuana offenses saves precious public funds, allows police to focus on more serious crimes and increases the likelihood of successful futures for an entire generation of young people is a tremendous victory, but let’s be clear: marijuana legalization alone doesn’t eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system.

Lawmakers here in the Excelsior state aspired do it better. Signing the marijuana legalization legislation approved by both houses on March 31st, Governor Cuomo called it “a historic day for New York – one that rights the wrongs of the past.” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins echoed the sentiments, calling the move “a momentous first step in addressing the racial disparities caused by the war on drugs that has plagued our state for too long,” while Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said that passage of the bill “brings to an end, decades of disproportionately targeting people of color under state and federal drug laws.” Let’s hope they’re right.