Brooklyn, Manhattan DAs Work Toward Clearing Marijuana Convictions

When the New York City Police Department announced it was intending to cut down on pot-smoking arrests, Brooklyn’s district attorney was already several steps down that road.

“My office will be vacating and sealing past marijuana convictions for thousands of people in Brooklyn,” Kings County District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said at a press conference on June 19, 2018. “I need to think about the people who have already received convictions on their record based on cases that we’re no longer going to prosecute.”

The mechanism for sealing so many records could involve having people go to the DA’s office or asking them to fill out a form online.

Although Gonzalez hasn’t ironed out those details yet, Jill Harris, his point person on the program, told there are more than 10,000 cases in Brooklyn alone. According to drug law reform group Drug Policy Alliance, which commissioned the Marijuana Arrest Research Project, the five-borough numbers are in the range of 60,000 marijuana possession arrests, 86 percent of them black and Latino New Yorkers.

“We’re still putting the program together, gathering data, talking to people,” said Harris, policy and strategy counsel for the Brooklyn DA’s office. “We’re working with local lawmakers, the mayor’s office and we’ll need cooperation from the courts to develop the plan. It’s a very important project and we want to get it right.”

Gonzalez’s predecessor, Ken Thompson, Brooklyn’s first black DA, announced in 2014 that he would stop prosecuting low-level marijuana charges. Since then, the number of weed-related convictions dropped about 75 percent in Brooklyn, according to the DA’s Office. Thompson died of cancer in 2016.

That’s when Gonzalez, the first Latino DA and architect of Thompson’s policy, stepped in to implement it.

Though cannabis arrests have declined, Gonzalez said racial disparities haven’t.

“The racial disparities in arrests remain intractable and unacceptable, so we need to do more to ensure fairness and trust in our system,” he said on Facebook.

An analysis undertaken and published by The New York Times, “Surest Way to Face Marijuana Charges in New York: Be Black or Hispanic,” made it clear that law enforcement’s explanation that complaints are higher in minority neighborhoods “doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.”

The ACLU confirmed that between 2001 and 2010, people of color are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite similar consumption patterns, but New York City takes the cake. Nearly 90 percent of about 18,000 people charged last year with marijuana possession were people of color.

The newspaper found that between 2015 and 2018, blacks were arrested on low-level weed charges at eight times the rate of whites, and Hispanics were arrested at five times the rate. In Manhattan, the disparity is even broader: Blacks were arrested at 15 times the rate of white people.

Meanwhile, New York County DA Cyrus Vance, Manhattan’s top prosecutor, has said to the press that he will also end cannabis arrests. His office is considering not only sealing records, but possibly expunging convictions, which goes further because the convictions would no longer be visible, even to law enforcement.

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