Police Offer No Public Safety Explanation for Massive Marijuana Arrests
November 23, 2012
Our findings support those of other researchers who question the public safety gains from massive marijuana arrests.
Jamie Fellner, senior adviser to the US Program

(New York) – Few of those who enter New York City’s criminal justice system as a result of marijuana possession arrests become dangerous criminals, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

With the 33-page report, “A Red Herring: Marijuana Arrestees Do Not Become Violent Felons,” Human Rights Watch offers new data indicating that people who enter the criminal justice system with an arrest for public possession of marijuana rarely commit violent crimes in the future. Over the last 15 years, New York City police have arrested more than 500,000 people – most of them young blacks or Hispanics – on misdemeanor charges of possessing small amounts of marijuana in public view. While Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the police have said the arrests have helped reduce violent crime, they have never specified how.

“Our findings support those of other researchers who question the public safety gains from massive marijuana arrests,” said Jamie Fellner, senior adviser to the US Program at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. “Public officials need to explain exactly how placing thousands of people in cuffs each year for possessing pot reduces violent crime.”

Using data provided by the New York Department of Criminal Justice Services, Human Rights Watch tracked until mid-2011 the subsequent criminal records of nearly 30,000 people who had no prior convictions when they were arrested for marijuana possession in public view in 2003 and 2004. Ninety percent of the group had no subsequent felony convictions. Only 3.1 percent were subsequently convicted of one violent felony offense. An additional 0.4 percent had two or more violent felony convictions.

According to Human Rights Watch’s data, the New York City police sweep large numbers of people into the the city’s criminal justice system – particularly young people of color – who do not go on to become dangerous felons. These findings are consistent with and add to research by Harry Levine, a sociologist at Queens College, City University of New York, which shows that the preponderance of marijuana arrestees do not have prior criminal convictions.

Allegations that the city’s marijuana possession arrests are racially discriminatory, violate constitutional rights, and cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars in law enforcement and court expenses are the subject of ongoing litigation and controversy. In June, Governor Andrew Cuomo unsuccessfully attempted to have new legislation passed that would reduce the penalties for marijuana possession in public view by making it a non-criminal violation instead of a misdemeanor. Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelley, and the five district attorneys of New York City all supported the legislation.

Convictions for misdemeanor marijuana possession, and even arrests that are not followed by a conviction, can have far-reaching adverse consequences for those arrested, including by diminishing their opportunities for employment, housing, and loans. Referring to those arrested for criminal possession of marijuana in public view, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance has said, “The human cost to each one of these people and their families is serious and it is real.”

“As long as they keep arresting people, and making them pay such a heavy price for possessing marijuana in public view, New York City officials owe the public an explanation for how those arrests contribute to public safety, ” said Issa Kohler-Hausmann, co-author of the report and consultant at Human Rights Watch for this project. “If these arrests have crime control benefits that outweigh the costs, public officials have yet to identify them.”