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Decriminalize pot

CY VANCE Manhattan District Attorney | 6/7/2012, 2:39 p.m.
States spend $3.6 billion on racially biased marijuana arrests

This Monday, my office won a jury conviction for the murder of 17-year-old Cheyenne Baez, an innocent teenager who was shot to death as she was talking to her friends at the A.K. Houses in East Harlem.

My office, together with the NYPD and members of the community, are committed to fighting this type of violent crime, keeping our neighborhoods safe and preventing families from suffering the tragedy that Baez's family was forced to suffer.

But as the district attorney, my job is not only to keep the public safe; it's also to make sure that the criminal justice system is fair. One of the challenges we face, especially in these times of limited resources, is to make sure that we're using our resources to focus on the most serious criminals, and in the smartest and fairest way possible.

That's why I'm supporting a change to New York State's criminal laws, proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana in public view.

Under the current law, if you possess a small amount of marijuana outside your pocket, you can be charged with a misdemeanor. But if that same amount of marijuana is inside your pocket, you can be charged with a violation--a noncriminal offense.

I don't believe this distinction makes any sense. The consequences for someone who possesses a small amount of marijuana should be the same, whether the marijuana is in a person's pocket or in his hand.

A misdemeanor charge under this law has significant human costs for the defendants and their families. Last year, there were more than 6,000 misdemeanor arrests in Manhattan under this law, disproportionately affecting Black or Latino young men. About half of these defendants had never been arrested before, approximately 46 percent were approximately 16 to 24 years of age and many of these defendants were held in jail before they were arraigned before a judge. A first-time arrest for a small amount of marijuana should not trigger a young person's being incarcerated or subject them to a criminal record.

In fact, a misdemeanor conviction could affect an individual's ability to secure a job or receive admission into an academic or training program. The consequences of this can be devastating for a young man or woman starting out in life.

Furthermore, the drain of resources on our office and the NYPD to process 6,000 cases is significant. The proposed law would allow us to redirect resources from processing people charged with simple low-level possession of marijuana and use those valuable resources to fight violent crimes and drug markets to make all of our communities safer.

This bill is not only supported by Cuomo but by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and all five of New York City's district attorneys. It is a simple and fair change that will help us redirect significant resources to the most serious criminals and crime problems, strikes the right balance between public safety and fairness and, frankly, is the right thing to do.