URBAN AGENDA: An Opportunity to Repair Harms Caused by Two-Tiered Criminal-Legal System

David R. Jones, Esq., President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York | 2/7/2019, midnight
When the 2019 legislative session began, many New Yorkers were excited to hear Gov. Cuomo include the much-anticipated legalization of ...
David R. Jones Contributed

When the 2019 legislative session began, many New Yorkers were excited to hear Gov. Cuomo include the much-anticipated legalization of adult-use cannabis in his budget priorities. We now know that the governor’s plan – set forth in the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act (CRTA), a budget bill – would remove marijuana and marijuana-related products from classification as illicit drugs under New York’s Controlled Substance Act, would reclassify certain crimes as violation-level offenses, and would reduce some criminal penalties.

But there is much more we need to know as amendments are being made to CRTA during the 30-day period.

While Gov. Cuomo’s recent statements about his criminal justice priorities for 2019 stressed that black and brown communities have been disproportionately impacted by low-level marijuana arrests, there is limited indication in CRTA just how he would go about repairing the damage. In fact, he recently stated that he did not see any real need to direct revenues from legalized marijuana to any specific program or community.

The fact of the matter is that New York has seen countless young people – black and brown young men in particular – fall to the wayside due to the inequitable and regressive nature of our state’s drug policy and its “war on drugs,” including marijuana. The damage to them – and to our city – is immeasurable. Marijuana prohibition policies have historically been reinforced via the folk tale that cannabis is a gateway drug.

Black Communities Have Historically Borne the Brunt of Punitive Drug Laws

We all know what happened next. The drug war resulted in the passage of punitive laws; black and brown people were the casualties. Over the past 20 years, we arrested more than 800,000 individuals for possession of marijuana, saddling many of them with a criminal record. New York has effectively become the marijuana arrest capital of the world. In 2016 alone, nearly 23,000 people were arrested statewide for possession of marijuana, the overwhelming majority of them people of color. As things now stand, the criminal records that result from possession of even a small amount of marijuana last a lifetime, and the civil consequences they bring with them do, too.

In New York State, having a criminal record can negatively impact nearly all aspects of life, including employment, a license to practice a trade and housing. And except in very limited circumstances, these criminal records can never be erased.

We need to fix this; the time is now. There is impetus on the state and federal level. Gov. Cuomo has acknowledged inequities in our criminal-legal system many times, including his 2018 State of the State Address, where he noted that New York has “two criminal justice systems: one for the wealthy and the well off, and one for everyone else.” And with Congress’ passage of the First Step Act, along with significant state legislation in play, the ongoing effects of encounters with punishment – particularly experienced by communities of color, poor and working people – are increasingly coming into focus. Across New York State and the country at large, there is an emerging agreement that people with conviction histories who have “paid their debt to society” should be able to clear their records.