Manhattan DA Ending Possession Charge Prosecutions to Reduce Racial Disparity

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In an exciting move that could lead others to follow, the district attorney in Manhattan announced that his office intends to mostly end prosecutions related to marijuana possession or smoking. Of course, they aren’t stopped these prosecutions overnight. The DA, Cyrus Vance Jr., claims that his office will halt cases related to marijuana possession or smoking beginning on August 1st, 2018.

The office will still prosecute some cases where public safety is a serious concern. They estimate a 96 percent reduction in cannabis possession charges, from roughly 5,000 to 200. Although this action was likely taking to offset public upset after a New York Times articles highlighted the issue, it is still positive progress and a step toward broader social justice.

People of color, including black Americans and Hispanic/Latinx people, face much more serious risk of arrest for marijuana possession. Generally speaking, statistics support a similar use level for cannabis across all races. However, in most cities and states, an evaluation of arrest rates reveals a shocking and inappropriate racial bias in terms of who faces cannabis possession charges.

The New York Times looked at arrest statistics over the last three years and found that people of color have a much higher risk of arrest for cannabis possession and smoking offenses. Across the city as a whole, black people got arrested for minor cannabis crimes eight times more frequently than white people. Hispanic/Latinx people had an arrest rate for these offenses that was five time what white people had.

Manhattan, however, was particularly bad in terms of racist enforcement of the law. Black people were arrested at a rate that was fifteen times higher than the arrest rate of white people for similar possession charges. The DA’s decision to stop prosecuting these offenses will protect people of color from institutionalized racism that could end up costing them financial aid for college or the ability to secure a great job in the future.

Arrests for people of color over relatively minor drug offenses are so common that some people call the War on Drugs “the New Jim Crow.” Not only do for-profit prisons allow the super rich to profit off the incarceration of non-violent offenders, the system also turns inmates into low-paid labor. Families get needlessly broken up, and people who could contribute much to our society end up saddled with a criminal record that holds them back from success.

Hopefully, the District Attorneys in other boroughs, as well as other cities and towns across the country, will follow the example set by Manhattan. After all, there are many more serious offenses and crimes that law enforcement could focus on instead of cannabis possession.

For previous Ladybud coverage of institutionalized racism, click here.