Brooklyn DA Will Stop Low-Level Drug Prosecutions

NEW YORK (AP) -

Most of the thousands of people arrested for the first time on low-level marijuana possession charges in Brooklyn will likely no longer be forced to go to court for cases that are often eventually dismissed anyway.

Under a new policy announced Tuesday by District Attorney Kenneth Thompson, prosecutors will now use their discretion to dismiss upfront many class B misdemeanor marijuana possession claims on a case-by-case basis. The policy parts from a previous practice that Thompson said weighed on the criminal justice system in both dollar and human costs.

In 2013, about two-thirds of the more than 8,500 low-level marijuana possession cases processed by the district attorney’s office were dismissed by judges at arraignment, according to statistics from his office.

“Given that these cases are ultimately — and predictably — dismissed, the burdens that they pose on the system and the individual are difficult to justify,” he said. “We are pouring money into an endeavor that produces no public safety benefit.”

The new policy would not apply to 16- and 17-year-olds, people with serious criminal histories and those caught smoking in public or near children, Thompson said.

The policy shift represents a follow through on a campaign pledge the new DA made last year, and it opens a new chapter in a yearslong debate over the tens of thousands of low-level marijuana possession arrests citywide each year.

New York state partly decriminalized marijuana possession in 1977 but drew a dividing line: Having up to about 7/8 of an ounce is a non-criminal violation akin to a traffic ticket if it’s in a purse or pocket but a misdemeanor if it’s “open to public view.”

Such arrests averaged about 2,100 a year in New York City from 1978 through 1995. Then they started soaring, peaking at 50,700 in 2011 before dropping amid an outcry and policy changes.

Critics feel the arrests take up more police time than they’re worth in public safety, and they say the arrests are racially disproportionate and reflect questionable police tactics. A huge majority of those arrested — 86 percent last year — are black and Hispanic.

Calling his new policy “reasonable, Thompson said it should not be construed as light on crime.

“This policy does not express approval for the use of marijuana and should not be interpreted as such,” he said.