Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson announced on Tuesday that his office will no longer prosecute most minor marijuana cases. Under the new policy Thompson announced in a nine-page memorandum, “when a case is brought by the police,” and it is determined “that the individual charged has either no criminal record or only a very minimal criminal record, there will be a presumption that the District Attorney’s Office will decline to prosecute the case in the interest of justice when the case involves mere possession.”
Thompson’s memo explains that he adopted this policy in part to ensure that “individuals, and especially young people of color, do not become unfairly burdened and stigmatized by involvement in the criminal justice system for engaging in non-violent conduct that poses no threat of harm to persons or property.” As Thompson acknowledges, a “vast number of community members” have used marijuana “with impunity.” Thus, he fears that “the imposition of a conviction for such conduct may perpetuate the public’s perception that the criminal justice system as a whole and law enforcement in particular is neither colorblind, nor class-blind.”
Although Thompson’s memo ensures that many low-level offenders can breathe a little easier, they should think twice before they take a stroll down the streets of Brooklyn carrying a joint. Under the newly announced policy, prosecutors may still bring charges if someone is caught getting high in public, especially if they are in a location such as a park, playground or school where children are likely to be nearby. Similarly, marijuana offenders with more than a “very minimal criminal record” are much more likely to face charges.
Thompson’s policy also doesn’t exactly have buy-in from the New York Police Department. As a candidate, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) criticized the “disastrous consequences” of arresting low-level pot offenders, and he said he would push for decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana. As mayor, however, de Blasio appointed police Commissioner William Bratton, who says that such a policy would be “a major mistake and something I will never support.” During de Blasio’s first three months as mayor, police made nearly as many arrests for minor pot offenses as they did during the same period in 2013.
Indeed, Bratton released a statement suggesting that his officers may continue to target minor marijuana offenders even if Thompson’s office will not prosecute them — “in order to be effective, our police officers must enforce the laws of the State of New York uniformly throughout all five boroughs of the city. . . . Accordingly, the Kings County policy change will not result in any changes in the policies and procedures of the N.Y.P.D.”