A Sensible Proposal

Andrew Cuomo has not exactly had the worst term in office of any first term governor…he did get gay marriage passed, after all, which is both a progressive coup as well as a logistical one…but as a former state attorney general, he has shown a mean streak about crime and punishment.

Until yesterday.

Wading into the debate over stop-and-frisk police tactics, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo plans to ask legislators on Monday for a change in New York State law that would drastically reduce the number of people who could be arrested for marijuana possession as a result of police stops.

Here’s the deal: during Mayor Giuliani’s tenure, a political philosophy was applied to police tactics. Called “Broken Windows,” it assumed that by cracking down and arresting people for minor crimes like turnstile jumping or possession of a joint, a message would be sent that crime would not be tolerated, thus discouraging larger crimes.

Did it work? It’s a quaint notion to believe it did and it may have had some small positive impact on the level of crime in the 1990s in NYC.

During the first half of the ’00s, NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly applied this theory more broadly. Rather than spot a crime, he went out of his way to find them, insituting the “stop and frisk” practice where police would pull over a person for the crime of being Latino or black, and pat them down, then if they were carrying anything illegal or could be shown to be implicated in an unsolved crime, arrest them.

Nice, huh? The average percentage of people who were innocent of anything hovered around 87% over the past ten years. Some white people were stopped, of course, and ironically white people were arrested and/or issued summonses about twice as often as blacks and Latinos. Representing about 11% of the stops while representing two-thirds of the criminal outcomes, you’d think cops would focus on more whites as the years progressed, but not so.

Many of the crimes involved the possession of small amounts of marijuana which, despite its alleged “decriminalized” status in New York– it merely means possession of pot has been bifurcated from drug possession laws– is an offense, which results in a ticket.

If it’s the only crime of which the offender is cited. Or, more relevant, his first arrest and conviction. After that, Katie bar the door.

Needless to say, possession of even a joint in those circumstances make you a repeat offender and even though it’s considered a violation and dismissed the first time, the next time a possessor will face a judge. And then it becomes either a good lawyer or a conviction. A criminal record and all that implies.

Bleak prospects for a young minority youth in a city like New York. You can’t get a job easily with a criminal record, you will always have a handicap in terms of income and housing and god knows what happens to you in jail.

It’s not marijuana that’s a gateway drug; it’s being arrested for possession that is the gateway.

Cuomo’s idea, to completely decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot, makes a lot of sense. This is legislation who’s time has long come.

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  • New York Times, By Thomas Kaplan, June 4

    Albany, NY — Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said on Monday that he would support a proposal by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to significantly curb the number of people who could be arrested for marijuana possession as a result of police stops.

    Mr. Cuomo urged lawmakers on Monday to change state law to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in public view, an offense that critics say leads to unfair charges against thousands of people who are ordered to empty their pockets during police stops that have proliferated under the Bloomberg administration’s stop-and-frisk practice.

    Mr. Bloomberg, whose administration had previously defended low-level marijuana arrests as a way to deter more serious crime, said in a statement that the governor’s proposal “strikes the right balance” in part because it would still allow the police to arrest people who were smoking marijuana in public.


    Mr. Cuomo said changing the law was a better approach in the long term, saying, “I think it puts the police in an awkward position to tell them: enforce some laws, don’t enforce other laws.”

    “This is nice and clean: change the law, period,” the governor added.

  • New York Times, By Thomas Kaplan & John Eligon, June 19

    Albany, NY – The Democrats who control the State Assembly, many of them black or Latino residents of New York City, saw a proposal to decriminalize the open possession of small amounts of marijuana as a simple matter of justice: too many black and Latino men were being arrested because, after being stopped by the police, they were forced to empty their pockets.

    But the Republicans who run the State Senate, all of them white and most of them from suburban or rural districts, saw decriminalization differently: as an invitation for young people to use drugs and as a declaration that Albany was soft on crime.

    “Marijuana still is a gateway drug to so many other much more dangerous things,” said Senator John J. Flanagan, a Long Island Republican.

    The differing life experiences, and worldviews, of lawmakers in the two chambers proved too much to overcome in the final days of this legislative session, and on Tuesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared his marijuana proposal dead.

    Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, said: “You have old folks like me who say, ‘Whoa, the decriminalization of marijuana: What are you saying? Everyone is going to walk around smoking marijuana, and that’s O.K.?’ So I think the Senate got a lot of blowback, pardon the pun.”

  • Chicago city council overwhelmingly votes to decriminalize marijuana

    Raw Story, By Steven C. Webster, June 27

    In a sweeping victory for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago City Council voted 43 to 3 on Wednesday to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

    Instead of requiring police to make an arrest when they discover someone possessing less than 15 grams of the drug, they have the option of simply issuing a ticket. Arrests are still mandatory for people who use the drug in public. Fines for misdemeanor possession will range from $100-$500, whereas the prior policy placed the fine at $1,500.

    Emanuel, former chief of staff to President Barack Obama, said he backed the proposal to free up police for more important work, like tracking down violent criminals instead of spending hundreds of hours on misdemeanor arrests. He also noted that over 18,000 cases concerning small amounts of marijuana flooded the judicial system in 2010 alone, adding that the vast majority were dismissed.

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