The Brooklyn district attorney’s office will stop prosecuting people arrested on charges of possessing small amounts of marijuana, according to a confidential policy proposal that the district attorney, Kenneth P. Thompson, sent to the New York Police Department this month.
The policy is part of a broader push on the part of Mr. Thompson, who took office this year, to look at alternatives to court for low-level offenders. His office is also participating in a task force looking into placing 16- and 17-year-olds who commit low-level, nonviolent misdemeanors, like scrawling graffiti or aggressively riding bicycles on sidewalks, into a short behavioral program, rather than the court system.
Defense advocates and community groups across the nation have been pushing the judicial system to rethink the traditional approach to handling small offenses.
Yet the moves have created tension between Mr. Thompson and police officials. The police commissioner, William J. Bratton, has been a proponent of the “broken windows” theory of policing, which holds that arrests for small violations help prevent larger crimes. Mr. Bratton espoused this theory when he was the commissioner under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in the 1990s, and, after returning to the department this year, has been directing officers to go after subway panhandlers and peddlers.
Now the Police Department may have to grapple with how to handle those accused of criminal marijuana possession when, under the proposed policy, prosecution will not follow.
According to the memorandum, when the police bring a low-level marijuana case, and the defendant has no criminal record or a minimal criminal record, “there will be a presumption that such case will be immediately dismissed” and “the police will be directed to destroy the defendant’s fingerprints.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Bratton said that he would not “respond to something that I have not basically reviewed in great depth or had discussions with the district attorney about,” but added that the department would continue to make marijuana arrests even as it used “a lot more discretion” in doing so.
He said he opposed the decriminalization of marijuana, but pledged to “continue to work with the political leadership and to work with the various prosecutors’ offices on how to deal with that issue.”
Mr. Thompson’s push is rare among prosecutors. The Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., publicly supports alternatives to incarceration, and endorsed a plan advocated by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, but has not gone so far as to propose his office stop prosecuting such cases.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Thompson said in a statement that he was “moving forward on a whole range of smart-on-crime strategies.”
One goal of the proposed marijuana policy, still in draft form, is 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 nonviolent conduct that poses no threat of harm to persons or property,” according to the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times.
Marijuana possession is the most common reason for arraignment in New York City: Criminal possession of marijuana in the fifth degree, which is the charge when someone is caught with small amounts of marijuana in public view, has repeatedly been the top arraignment charge in the city, according to court records.
Processing such cases — there were over 8,500 of them in Brooklyn in 2013 — requires a significant amount of paperwork, staff and logistics, the document says, and more than two-thirds of the cases end up being dismissed.
“We are pouring money and effort into an endeavor that produces no public safety benefit for the community,” the memo reads.
According to civil liberties researchers, there is a huge gap between how black and white people are treated in marijuana cases. In Brooklyn and Manhattan, black people are nine times as likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana than white people — the highest disparities in the state, according to a 2013 report from the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Defense advocates say the charge of possessing marijuana in public became a particular problem with the rise in stop-and-frisk police tactics, where their clients were told to empty their pockets and then brought in on misdemeanor charges.
The consequences of even minor charges can be broad, said Lisa Schreibersdorf, executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services. And even if a charge is dismissed, people spend up to 24 hours in jail alongside others who have often committed more serious crimes, she said. “Any policy that can move all of these issues in a positive direction is a good policy,” she said.
The Brooklyn borough president, Eric L. Adams, said he supported the proposal.
“One of the tragedies that took place over these last few years is many of the D. A.s should have done more to red-flag many of these arrests,” Mr. Adams said. “We can’t continue to tie up our court systems with these petty marijuana arrests.”
As Mr. Thompson’s policy on marijuana offenses goes forward, he is also examining how to handle other petty crimes.
A task force that includes the district attorney’s office, the Police Department, Brooklyn Defender Services and the Legal Aid Society has been studying how to divert 16- and 17-year-olds from the criminal justice system.
The group has been conducting a pilot program called DAT-Y, run by the nonprofit group Young New Yorkers and aimed at young people who receive desk appearance tickets that charge nonviolent offenses. Rather than sending the youths through the court system, the program has them attend arts-based sessions that promote critical thinking about good choices — for example, having the attendees sketch out what the effect on their families would be if they were arrested. They graduate at court, in front of Judge George A. Grasso, who oversees arraignments in New York City’s criminal courts. Court records are then sealed and immediately dismissed.
The task force is looking into expanding the program to all 16- and 17-year-olds given desk appearance tickets.
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