A new study by a sociologist confirms what many of us have suspected for a long time, that drug policies which criminalize marijuana use are ‘weeding out’ blacks and latinos in New York City. The study, by Queens College sociologist Harry G. Levin and Deborah Peterson Small, an attorney and advocate for drug policy reform, is called “Marijuana Arrest Crusade” (opens .pdf), and was released yesterday by the New York Civil Liberties Union, which says:
“The NYPD arrested and jailed nearly 400,000 people for possessing small amounts of marijuana between 1997 and 2007, a tenfold increase in marijuana arrests over the previous decade and a figure marked by startling racial and gender disparities…”
And, indeed, those disparities are striking, as this graph illustrates. The study, based on data from the NY State Division of Criminal Justice Services showed that between 1997 and 2007, 52 percent of the suspects were black, 31 percent Hispanic and only 15 percent white.
As I’ve mentioned here before, for about five years I directed a large (N=565) study of young guys leaving incarceration at Rikers, and a huge proportion of these young men had been arrested on marijuana charges. The fact is, these arrests don’t make the city any safer and only serve to make sure it is the same people who are locked up at Rikers. And, the bias in the arrest process is part of the problem, according to an article on this study in the Village Voice, in which Levine asserts that:
“… most of those who’ve been busted ‘were actually not guilty of what they were charged with.’ Levine says that …[based on interviews with]… Legal Aid and defense attorneys, that two-thirds to three-quarters of the people arrested ‘are not smoking in public,’ but instead had marijuana in a pocket, purse, or backpack. Possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana is a non-criminal violation—not even a misdemeanor—and the cops used to just issue tickets for it. But the arrests cited in Levine’s study were all made for having marijuana ‘burning or open to public view,’ a misdemeanor charge meant to dissuade open lawlessness.
The Voice article goes on to describe the kinds of police tactics that result in these sorts of disproportionate arrests, and these amount to dirty tricks. For instance, according to Levine, the cop tells the person being detained, “Show me what’s in your pocket and I’ll go easy on you,” or may simply order in a loud voice: “Let’s see what’s in your pockets.” When the person pulls out the marijuana, it now becomes the misdemeanor offense of “open to public view.”
This is no coincidence, of course. The racial disparities in arrests for marijuana are skewed less by individual bigotry of individual cops (although that makes it an easier more seamless process), but rather a “racially biased, discriminatory, unfair, and unjust” systematic focus within the NYPD on black and latino young men. And it is young men, the study also reveals that about 91% of the total 400,000 arrested were male. The Voice article goes on to point out the obvious here, but it’s worth stating the obvious sometimes:
Statistically, there are just as many young white people walking around the Upper West Side neighborhoods near Columbia University with pot in their pockets as there are blacks holding marijuana a few blocks away in Harlem. But Harlem has one of the highest marijuana-arrest rates, while the Upper West Side has one of the lowest. That’s because more city cops are assigned to “high-crime” areas, most of which are disproportionately black or Latino, Levine says. The cops are then pushed to meet Kelly’s “productivity goals,” which the police union’s lawyers contend in pending lawsuits are actually “illegal quotas” for arrests and stop-and-frisks.
So, what are the consequences for these young men who are arrested for marijuana, sometimes as young as 14 or 15? Often, they are locked in adolescent wings within adult facilities (as were the guys in our research project), they are then “in the system” meaning that they now have an arrest record. Once they have an arrest record, they are more likely to get arrested again if caught in one of the stop-and-frisk sweeps, and they are less likely to finish school. Indeed, at most public schools in New York City, once a young person has been arrested they are also no longer welcome to attend classes. When they are released from Rikers, they are taken by bus to Queens Plaza (a bleak little spot) and dropped off at 3am with a MetroCard and little else. It’s little wonder then, that the likelihood of re-arrest for these guys once they’re “in the system” is around 65%. It’s a structure that makes any other outcome for young black and latino men other than arrest unlikely….except for the outcome in the Sean Bell case. The undercover operation that all those detectives were involved in at the Kahlua Club? A routine, buy-and-bust drug operation.