New York City police arrest more people for possessing small amounts of marijuana in public view than for any other offense. Between 1996 and 2011, police made more than half-a-million (586,320) arrests for this misdemeanor, including a total of around 100,000 in just the 2 years of 2010 and 2011. Most arrests for plain-view marijuana possession occur in poor, predominantly minority neighborhoods. Arrestees are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic.
Neither New York City police nor Mayor Michael Bloomberg has ever provided a detailed justification for the high numbers of marijuana arrests, suggesting only that the arrests improve public safety. While the public safety benefits of many kinds of arrests are readily apparent, e.g. arrests of homicide suspects, the gains from arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana are less easy to discern. A more complete justification is warranted not only because the arrests disproportionately affect black and Hispanic city residents, but also because the sheer number of marijuana possession arrests consumes many scarce and expensive law enforcement and judicial resources.
When the police arrest someone for misdemeanor marijuana possession, they enter fingerprints and other identifying information into criminal databases. Capturing this information might help police solve future serious crimes committed by the arrestees. Our data, however, indicates the police sweep large numbers of people into New York City’s criminal justice system—particularly young people of color—who do not subsequently engage in violent crime.
We tracked through mid-2011 the criminal records of nearly 30,000 people without prior criminal convictions who were arrested in 2003 and 2004 for marijuana possession. As shown in the figure below, we found that 3.1 percent of them were subsequently convicted of one violent felony offense during the six-and-a-half to eight-and-a-half years that our research covers; 0.4 percent had two or more violent felony convictions. That is, 1,022 persons out of the nearly 30,000 we tracked had subsequent violent felony convictions. Ninety percent (26,315) had no subsequent felony convictions of any kind.
Curtailing crime—particularly violent or dangerous crime—is a legitimate and important public goal. But law enforcement efforts to enhance public safety by identifying those who engage in crime and holding them accountable through criminal prosecution, must be pursued through tactics that comply with human rights requirements. Respect for human rights requires that policing policy be grounded on objective evidence and criteria that are neither discriminatory nor arbitrary, and should not be unjustifiably restrictive or negatively impact rights in comparison to other policy options.
Allegations that police conduct marijuana possession arrests in an unlawful and arbitrary manner—without reasonable grounds to stop and frisk those they later arrest, and that they disproportionately arrest blacks and Hispanics for marijuana possession and other low-level crimes — are not only the subject of much controversy and litigation, but they also raise serious human rights concerns. Racial disparities in marijuana arrests do not automatically mean the police have engaged in racial discrimination that is prohibited under international human rights law. Unwarranted racial disparities, however, may constitute such discrimination even in the absence of racist intent. Human rights based concerns are thus heightened by the failure of the police to offer a detailed rationale for the marijuana policing policy, the objective criteria on which the arrests are based, and empirical evidence that they contribute to public safety.
An explanation is also warranted because the costs—both financial and social—of the marijuana arrests are substantial. Precious law enforcement resources are expended making, processing, and booking tens of thousands of marijuana possession arrests each year. Goodwill toward law enforcement may be eroded when substantial numbers of community residents are arrested or witness friends and relatives arrested for marijuana possession, especially when they believe the police had no basis for approaching them in the first place. This goodwill is especially important in high crime neighborhoods where relationships with community members are often vital for solving or preventing serious crimes and for gathering information to deal with persistent crime.
Overworked prosecutors with more serious offenses in their caseloads demanding attention, equally overburdened public defenders charged with providing adequate defense to every accused person, and criminal court personnel (including judges, clerks, and court officers), all suffer under dockets swollen from the marijuana arrests along with the more than 200,000 other misdemeanor cases that flow through the city’s courts each year.
Marijuana arrests also have significant implications for the tens of thousands of New York City residents who endure the discomfort and humiliation of being handcuffed, booked and searched, spending one or two days in police holding cells and central bookings, going through arraignment, and perhaps even being required to endure pretrial detention. As Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance has stated, referring to people arrested for criminal possession of marijuana in public view, “The human cost to each one of these people and their families is serious and it is real.”
Those who are convicted of marijuana possession also face the prospect of limited opportunities for employment, access to public housing, and other benefits, in addition to threatened child custody and immigration status. Indeed, people arrested for marijuana possession may suffer even if they are never convicted or if they have their cases dismissed because prospective employers, schools, and housing authorities often ask individuals about arrests.  As Assemblymember Hakeem Jeffries has said, “For years, thousands of New Yorkers, who are disproportionately Black and Latino youth, have been charged with unnecessary misdemeanors, thereby creating barriers for future employment … [and] permanent damage on their records.” 
In June 2012, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced legislation to make possession of marijuana in public view a non-arrestable, non-criminal violation, like a parking ticket (smoking marijuana in public would remain a misdemeanor). Although there was considerable support for the legislative effort, conservative opposition killed it. Significantly, however, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the five district attorneys for New York City, and even the New York City police commissioner all supported the legislation.Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said the “new law will allow us to redirect resources away from processing people charged with simple low-level possession of marijuana, and use those valuable resources to fight violent crime to make all our communities safer, and thereby enhance public safety.” Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes said that the Cuomo proposal would “lead to a more efficient use of law enforcement resources.” This support for classifying possession of marijuana in public view as a non-criminal violation heightens the need for an explanation from New York City officials for how ongoing marijuana possession misdemeanor arrests contribute to public safety.
To New York City Elected and Law Enforcement Officials
Provide publicly the explanation for and
supporting factual evidence establishing the oft-asserted causal connection
between large numbers of arrests for marijuana possession and increased public
safety and crime control.
- If the goal of the arrests is to reduce violent crime, explain how marijuana possession arrests are tailored to do so and provide empirical evidence that massive marijuana arrests do, in fact, promote this goal.
- If the arrests are to further other public safety objectives, identify the objectives, explain how marijuana possession arrests are tailored to serve them, and provide empirical evidence that they in fact do so.
- Ensure that marijuana arrest policies and practices conform to basic human rights and constitutional law requirements regarding the right to liberty—which is violated by unlawful or arbitrary arrests—and the right to be free of racial discrimination which, under international human rights law, can be violated even without racist intent on the part of police or public officials.
Our study utilized micro-level criminal record data obtained from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS). We sought to identify individuals whose initial contact with the criminal justice system (as best as can be determined reliably from state administrative data, see Methodological Appendix) was for possessing marijuana in a public place and the marijuana was being smoked or was open to public view, a misdemeanor under New York penal law.
To ensure a sufficient number of years to track any subsequent criminal history, we gathered information on people who were arrested in New York City for marijuana possession anytime during 2003 or 2004. The research period continued through mid-2011. A 6.5 to 8.5-year period of study greatly exceeds the 3-year period used for most recidivism studies.
In order to be able to limit the study to persons who were not already “in the system” for prior criminal convictions at the time of the marijuana arrest, we focused on those whose marijuana arrest terminated in “adjournment in contemplation of dismissal in cases involving marihuana,” a type of conditional dismissal established under New York law (hereafter referred to in this paper as MJACD).
The MJACD is typically given to persons new to the criminal justice system. Individuals charged with marijuana crimes are eligible for a MJACD if they have not previously been granted one, if they have not previously been convicted of any controlled substance offenses, or upon the district attorney’s consent if they have previously been convicted of a crime. Most people who receive a MJACD for marijuana possession have thus not shown a prior willingness or propensity to engage in crime. Tracking their later criminal justice involvement allowed us to see if marijuana arrests allowed police to identify people likely to engage in more serious offenses down the road.
The MJACD was also appropriate for our research because it is the most common disposition from a marijuana arrest. In 2003 and 2004, 59 and 60 percent, respectively, of all arrests where the top charge was misdemeanor marijuana possession (New York Penal Law § 221.10) terminated in a marijuana adjournment in contemplation of dismissal. This disposition group therefore not only gave us a sizable number of individuals to track, but also represents a substantial portion of people arrested in a given year for misdemeanor marijuana possession.
People who receive a MJACD have their cases dismissed and sealed if they stay out of trouble for a year; after the adjournment period, the marijuana arrest and conditional disposition will no longer print on the “rap” sheet. However, the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services retains the fingerprints of and an identification number associated with each person who has received an MJACD. We were therefore able to reliably track all later New York State arrests and convictions for the group under study.
We ended up with 29,147 individuals arrested solely for marijuana possession in public view in 2003 and 2004, who had no prior criminal convictions at the time of arrest, and whose cases terminated in marijuana adjournments in contemplation of dismissal. (In this report we will refer to these individuals collectively as the MJACD cohort or the group under study.) We then constructed the criminal justice trajectories of each individual in this cohort until June 2011 (the most recent administrative records from the date when the DCJS provided data). 
Demographics of the Group under Study
As shown in Table One, most (86.8 percent) of the individuals in the group under study were male. Two-thirds were aged 25 or younger at the time of the arrest; indeed, almost one-quarter (23.3 percent) were between 16 and 18 years of age.
Nearly eight out of ten members of the cohort were either black or Hispanic. Blacks constituted almost one-half (48.6 percent) of the cohort, and Hispanics nearly one-third (31.3 percent).
In 1977, the New York State legislature reclassified the private possession of small amounts of marijuana, making it a non-criminal violation. The Marihuana Reform Act of 1977 expressed the rationale for the statutory change in the following terms: “The legislature finds that arrests, criminal prosecutions and criminal penalties are inappropriate for people who possess small quantities of marihuana for personal use. Every year, this process needlessly scars thousands of lives and wastes millions of dollars in law enforcement resources, while detracting from the prosecution of serious crime.”
Smoking or possessing marijuana openly in public remains a misdemeanor, albeit the lowest degree misdemeanor. The police may arrest and book the alleged offenders, take their fingerprints and other information, and hold them until arraignment. In addition to possessing marijuana in public view, the law criminalizes, as a misdemeanor, possessing 25 grams to 8 ounces of marijuana and the sale of any amount up to 25 grams.
Marijuana Arrests and Use in New York City
Between 1996 and 2011, city police made 586,320 arrests for possession of marijuana in public view in violation of New York Penal Law § 221.10. Despite the decades-old legislative directive to avoid squandering precious policing and court resources on minor marijuana possession offenses, these cases represent the largest component of citywide arrests and criminal court dockets.
In some of these cases, the defendants were smoking or passing a joint in public. But residents of minority communities, people who have been arrested, and advocates for them claim that a far more typical scenario is that marijuana is recovered from inside a pocket or backpack and thus becomes “open to public view” only after the police stop individuals and either ask them to empty their pockets or conduct a frisk.
Responding to widespread criticism of the circumstances surrounding many marijuana arrests, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly issued Operations Order #49 on September 19, 2011. Under the order, police,
… lawfully exercising their police powers during a stop may not [italics in original] charge the individual with PL 221.10(1) … if the marihuana recovered was disclosed to public view at an officer’s direction. In such situations, uniformed members of the service must charge the violation, Unlawful Possession of Marijuana (UPM), Penal Law section 221.05.
Numerous reports and official state data reveal that police officers have nevertheless continued to charge New Yorkers with misdemeanors for possession of marijuana that had been hidden until the police intervened.
Data gathered by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene indicates that the rates of marijuana use among the city’s youth do not differ significantly by race and ethnicity, although non-Hispanic whites have slightly higher rates than non-Hispanic blacks. Nevertheless, marijuana arrests predominate in precincts with high minority populations; conversely, the lowest rates of arrest are found in the precincts with the highest proportions of white residents. As a result, blacks and Hispanics are more frequently arrested for marijuana possession than whites.
Between 1996 and 2010, blacks and Hispanics constituted 87 percent of marijuana possession arrests, even though they accounted for only 52 percent of the city’s population. Non-Hispanic whites were only 12 percent of arrests, but constituted 35 percent of the population. Between 1997 and 2006, blacks were arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession at five times the rate of whites; in 2008, blacks were arrested at seven times the rate of whites.
A recent analysis of marijuana arrests in the period 2004-2008 revealed 48 blacks arrested for marijuana possession for every 1,000 in the population, 24 Hispanics arrested per 1,000, and 6 whites arrested per 1,000. That is, blacks were arrested for marijuana possession at eight times the rate of whites.
Human Rights Watch has previously reported on racial discrimination in the context of US drug law enforcement.  Under international human rights law, prohibited racial discrimination occurs where there is an unjustifiable disparate impact on a racial or ethnic group, regardless of whether there is any intent to discriminate against that group. This report does not seek to determine whether New York City’s marijuana possession arrests are racially discriminatory under international law. Nevertheless, we note the results of sophisticated and comprehensive research indicating marked racial disparities in marijuana arrests that cannot be justified by disparities in use or fully explained by relevant neighborhood characteristics such as crime patterns.
Marijuana Arrests and Public Safety
New York City officials have suggested that marijuana possession arrests promote public safety. They have never, however, articulated the precise way they do so. Some officials point to New York City’s declining rate of violent crime and the increased number of marijuana arrests as though this constitutes an ipso facto causal connection between the two.
Thus, for example, Paul Browne, spokesman for the New York Police Department, has said, “Attention to marijuana and lower level crime in general has helped drive crime down.” Jim Dwyer, a columnist for The New York times, recently wrote,
For the last four years, I have asked the mayor’s office and the police commissioner why there has been an explosion of marijuana arrests among black and Latinos. Officials in those offices consistently, and ardently, defended the arrests as vital to public safety. In 2008, a police spokesman, Paul J. Browne, said “Taking care of little crimes, including pot possession … helped drive crime down.” In 2009, John Feinblatt, a mayoral aide, said, “This continued focus on low-level offending has been part of the city’s effective crime-reduction strategy, which has resulted in a 35 percent decrease in crime since 2001.” Last year, another aide, Frank Barry, said, “Marijuana arrests can be an effective tool for suppressing the expansion of street-level drug markets and the corresponding violence.”
Heather McDonald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, also asserts a causal link between marijuana arrests and public safety. She has said, for example, “the over 10,000 minority lives that have been saved since the onset of New York’s policing revolution are unequivocally more important than an elevated risk of getting stopped, including for marijuana violations, in a high-crime neighborhood.”  Social science research has cast serious doubt on the claim that marijuana arrests cause a decline in street crime. A study using longitudinal data on marijuana arrests and street crime rates from 1989-2000 in precincts across New York City concluded that increases in marijuana possession arrests were not associated with decreases in violent crime. 
Marijuana arrests are deeply connected to New York City’s policing policy of intensive stop, question, and frisk, as well as arrests and summonses for low-level offenses in higher crime neighborhoods. These tactics are sometimes collectively called “broken windows,” “order maintenance,” or “quality of life” policing.
Broken windows policing is predicated on the theory that uncontrolled physical and social disorder foments the conditions for more serious crimes to occur. Social science scholars and policy analysts have long debated whether aggressive stop and frisks and arrests for low-level offenses do, in fact, reduce violent crime, either by enhancing the community’s sense of order and control, or perhaps simply by asserting a crime-preventing law enforcement presence in high crime areas.
Jack Maple—former deputy police commissioner and one of the principle innovators of both the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) Compstat program and its dramatic expansion of stops and arrests for low-level offenses—had a different rationale. He said the goal of quality of life policing is to identify serious criminals, i.e., “to catch the sharks, not the dolphins.” Franklin Zimring, a criminologist who has studied New York City policing, explains the strategy as follows: “When serious bad guys get nabbed for a minor crime, it provides an opportunity to check for outstanding warrants on them and get them off the streets.” 
Arrests for marijuana possession and other low-level offenses enable the police to obtain identification, fingerprints, and other information that may prove useful in solving future, as well as past crime. Zimring suggests that the persons selected for marijuana arrests “are in neighborhoods and fit the profiles in the police view of potential robbers and burglars. Managing street risks rather than combating the evils of marijuana is the patrol agenda." Harry Levine, a sociologist at Queens College, City University of New York who has extensively studied New York City marijuana arrests, has stated the arrests provide,
an easy way to target and acquire information—to institutionalize and routinize surveillance—on young people, particularly people of color…. Marijuana arrests are the best and easiest way currently available to acquire actual fingerprints, photos, and other data on young people, especially black and Latino youth, who have not previously been entered into the criminal justice databases.
Police officers have claimed that collecting identifying information on people in high crime neighborhoods through stop, question, and frisk activities is an effective crime-solving tool.
Information about marijuana arrestees would be useful to the police to solve past or future crimes if the arrestees had engaged or subsequently did engage in such crimes. Levine has previously shown that the preponderance of arrestees for marijuana possession in New York City do not have criminal records. Human Rights Watch has supplemented this research by developing data that indicates people whose initial contact with the criminal justice system is for marijuana possession in public view rarely become dangerous felons in the future.
There are other possible mechanisms through which extensive marijuana arrests could reduce future crime, such as incapacitation and deterrence. The descriptive data we have developed cannot answer such causal questions. We believe, nonetheless, that our findings— that marijuana arrestees do not have high rates of subsequent felony crime convictions—contribute an important piece of the puzzle regarding the putative public safety benefit of marijuana arrests.
The following tables and figures report the arrest and conviction trajectories of members of the marijuana 2003-2004 cohort from their arrest in 2003 or 2004 until June 2011. The unit of analysis is the individual, unless otherwise specified.
Arrests are not a valid measure of criminal conduct. In the aggregate, arrest data may say as much or more about law enforcement practices, including where and when the police work, as they do about the actions of people who are arrested. Nevertheless, because arrest records are so commonly cited in criminal analyses, we have included a brief overview of the arrests of cohort members during the study period. Table Two displays the number and type (misdemeanor or felony) of arrests occurring after the marijuana arrest terminating in the initiating MJACD.
As shown in Table Two, nearly 4 in 10 (38.0 percent) of the MJACD cohort had no subsequent arrests as of mid-2011. Another 29.1 percent (8,493 individuals) had only misdemeanor and no felony arrests, including 4,161 who had only 1 subsequent misdemeanor arrest. Of the total 9,571 individuals who had 1 or more felony arrests (32.8 percent of the cohort), approximately half (4,742 individuals) had a single felony arrest.
Figure 2 presents a graphic overview of the number and nature of the subsequent misdemeanor and felony convictions of members of the cohort from the time of their marijuana possession arrest in 2003 or 2004 through June 2011. In the tables and figures that follow, we drill down into these numbers to better understand their significance.
As shown graphically in Figure 3, four out of five (80.3 percent) of the members of the marijuana 2003-2004 cohort, or 23,418 out of the total 29,147 individuals, had no misdemeanor or felony convictions over the 6.5 to 8.5-year period they were tracked, and 9 out of 10 (90.3 percent) had no felony convictions.
Table 3 shows that most cohort members with subsequent convictions did not have extensive criminal records.  For example, 1,695 individuals had a single misdemeanor conviction and no felony convictions. Another 1,202 were convicted of 2 or more misdemeanors and no felony convictions. That is, 2,897 individuals—9.9 percent of the entire cohort—had subsequent criminal records limited to misdemeanor convictions. Almost three-quarters (73.2 percent) of those who had felony convictions—2,072 out of 2,832 individuals— had a single felony conviction (not including any misdemeanor convictions). However, 760 individuals—2.6 percent of the cohort—accumulated more extensive records consisting of 2 or more felonies, including 38 who had 4 or more felony convictions. Half (51.2 percent) of all cohort members with felony convictions had no misdemeanor convictions.
In addition to tracking the number of subsequent criminal convictions, we also sought to determine the nature of the felony crimes for which cohort members were convicted. A substantial portion of the individuals with later felony convictions were convicted exclusively for drug felonies. Among the 2,832 cohort members convicted of one or more felonies, 1,114 (39.3 percent) were only convicted of drug felonies. Among those whose felony convictions were limited to drug offenses, 77.5 percent (864 individuals) had only a single drug felony conviction. Among those convicted of drug felonies, all but two were convicted of drug crimes below class A felony offenses.
Convictions for violent felonies were relatively uncommon.  As shown in Table Five, only 3.5 percent of the entire cohort (1,022 individuals) had one or more violent felony convictions over the 6.5 to 8.5-year period they were tracked. Among them, 912 individuals (3.1 percent of the total cohort) had a single violent felony conviction. (Looked at differently, among all cohort members who had violent felony convictions, 82.9 percent had only one such conviction.) Only 110 individuals—0.4 percent of the cohort—had more than one violent felony conviction. Some individuals convicted of violent felonies were also convicted of nonviolent felonies. For example, of the 912 persons with a single violent felony conviction, 225 had nonviolent felony convictions as well. 
We constructed the category of “injurious misdemeanors” to capture convictions for lower level crimes that involved or risked physically harmful or offensive conduct. The category includes offenses such as misdemeanor assault (e.g. intentionally causing physical harm to another that does not reach the felony threshold of “serious physical harm,” e.g. a slap in a bar), weapons possession (e.g. possession of a gravity knife), or misdemeanor sexual offenses (e.g. unwanted touching of a stranger’s buttocks on the subway) (see Methodological Appendix for full list of offenses included in this category).
As shown in Figure 4, in addition to the 80.3 percent of the group (23,418 individuals) who had no subsequent criminal convictions at all, 6.1 percent (1,770 individuals) had criminal convictions that did not include injurious misdemeanors or violent felonies. Another 10.1 percent (2,937 individuals) had one or more injurious misdemeanors, but no violent felony convictions. 
Among the members of the cohort who were subsequently convicted of an injurious misdemeanor, the most common convictions were, in order of frequency:
- Criminal trespass in the second degree
- Driving while intoxicated
- Assault in the third degree
- Criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree
- Criminal contempt in the second degree or bail jumping
- Unauthorized use of a vehicle in the third degree 
Our aim in this study was to ascertain whether a significant percentage of people who enter the criminal justice system for misdemeanor marijuana possession go on to be convicted of serious felony offenses. We found that within 6.5 to 8.5 years after the initial marijuana possession arrest, 3.5 percent had one or more violent felony convictions, and another 6.5 percent had felony convictions for nonviolent offenses.
Assessing the significance of 3.5 percent as the proportion of the cohort who have subsequent violent felony convictions is necessarily a value judgment. Some people might think it an extremely large number, others might think it extremely small. Interpretation of any statistic always involves substantive and subjective policy and value judgments.
There is no readily available data on the rates of felony or violent felony conviction for comparable demographic groups in New York City who do not enter the criminal justice system on marijuana charges. But the rate of felony and violent felony conviction among this group of first-time marijuana arrestees appears to be lower than the rate of felony conviction for the national population, taking into account age, gender, and race.
One major national study, for example, estimated that the
cumulative risk of imprisonment by the age of 33 (that is, being sentenced to a
prison term for any felony conviction) for the cohort of men born between
1965-1969 was 5.3 percent for white men with no college education and 30
percent for black men with the same age and education profile.
Using a cross-sectional approach, another study estimated that over 6 percent
of the adult non-black population had a felony conviction in 2010, whereas 25
percent of the black adult male population had a felony conviction in 2010.
Many critics of New York City’s marijuana possession arrests insist they are skewed racially and by class, have little public safety payoff, cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars, and unnecessarily subject marijuana users to the harshness of the criminal justice system. As one academic article recently summarized, “Nonwhite New Yorkers bear a racial tax from contemporary policing strategy, a social cost not offset by any substantial observed benefits to public safety.”
If the point of making massive marijuana arrests is to cast a wide net where potential sharks might be lurking—to use Jack Maple’s phrase—the police seem to be pulling in far more dolphins than sharks. Neither our findings nor those of other researchers indicate the arrests are an efficient or fair means for identifying future dangerous felons.
Whether or not marijuana arrests should nonetheless continue to be the number one police arrest activity and the number one penal law charge adjudicated in New York City’s criminal courts is a matter outside the scope of this report. But litigation, extensive research by others, and our data all suggest New York City officials should provide long overdue answers to such important questions as: How exactly do marijuana arrests contribute to public safety and crime control? Are the stops that result in marijuana arrests made lawfully? Do the arrests produce unwarranted racial disparities? Do public benefits resulting from the arrests outweigh the costs, including the very real impact they have on the lives and rights of those arrested?
This report was co-authored by Issa Kohler-Hausmann, a research fellow at Georgetown Law Center and PhD candidate at New York University and consultant to Human Rights Watch for this project, and Jamie Fellner, senior advisor in the US Program at Human Rights Watch. It is based primarily on analyses conducted by Ms. Kohler-Hausmann of data provided to her by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. Brian Root, quantitative analyst in the US Program, reviewed the statistics and, along with Grace Choi, publications director, helped develop their graphic presentation.
This paper was edited by Maria McFarland, acting director of the US Program and Danielle Haas, senior editor in the Program Department. Aisling Reidy provided legal review. Production assistance was provided by Samantha Reiser, associate in the US Program. Layout, graphics, and production were undertaken by Anna Lopriore, creative outreach manager, Ivy Shen, multimedia production associate, Grace Choi, publications director, and Fitzroy Hepkins, mail manager for Human Rights Watch.
We are grateful to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services for their assistance in providing aggregate data for 2003-04 marijuana possession arrests and other assistance. The analysis, opinions, findings, and conclusions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and not those of DCJS. We are indebted to Harry Levine, Department of Sociology, Queens College, City University of New York for his pioneering analysis of NYC marijuana arrests and his encouragement of this project. We also thank Amanda Geller, associate research scientist at Columbia University School of Social Work, Scott Levy, Bronx Defenders, David Greenberg, Department of Sociology, New York University, David Cole, Georgetown University Law Center, Christopher Weiss, Department of Sociology, New York University, and Andrew Golub, National Development and Research Institute for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this report.
Study Summary & New York State Sealing Laws
This study was designed to track the criminal justice trajectories of individuals who entered the low end of the criminal justice system for marijuana possession. However, the state’s sealing laws (namely Criminal Procedure Law §§ 160.50 and 160.55) limit our ability to reliably track the later criminal justice trajectories of individuals who enter the criminal justice system with an arrest that terminates in a dismissal or conviction for a non-criminal violation.
When a person is arrested with no prior New York State criminal justice contacts, a unique criminal justice identifying number, called a New York State Identification (NYSID), is generated and matched to the defendant’s fingerprints. If the person is convicted of a criminal offense (that is, the case is not dismissed and the defendant is not convicted of a non-criminal violation or infraction), then the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services (NYDCJS) maintains a digital image of the fingerprint linked to the offender’s name, NYSID, and other identifying information. From that point forward, if the person is arrested, his or her prints are taken and matched to the NYSID and the criminal record is generated based on this match. All later records of this individual’s arrest events are linked together by the same NYSID in the DCJS database.
If a defendant’s case is dismissed in any fashion, all records of the proceedings must be sealed and—provided the state does not already have the defendant’s fingerprints on file from a prior criminal conviction—the fingerprints must be destroyed and de-linked from the NYSID. If that same person is arrested after the sealing date he or she would be issued a new NYSID. This means that an individual could have a later arrest that would not be connected to the prior arrest by a common NYSID.
However, if the defendant’s case terminates in a marijuana Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal (ACD), as defined by Criminal Procedure Law § 170.56, then the fingerprints are not destroyed and de-linked from the NYSID. Because the statute forbids a defendant from being granted more than one marijuana ACD in his or her lifetime, New York Criminal Procedure Law § 160.50(1)(a) explicitly excludes the MJACD from the provisions of the sealing law requiring DCJS to destroy the fingerprints of defendants in these cases.
If the defendant is convicted, either through a plea or trial, of a non-criminal violation—and provided the state does not already have the defendant’s fingerprints on file from a prior criminal conviction—then his or her fingerprints will also eventually be destroyed and de-linked from the arrest NYSID unless the court has issued a do not seal order. If the defendant was convicted of a violation or infraction and sentenced to a conditional discharge, then the case remains on the person’s rap sheet for a year, after which (provided there is no other criminal conviction) the case is sealed, and the DCJS is directed to destroy the fingerprints and de-link the NYSID. If the defendant was convicted of a violation or infraction and sentenced to time served, or a fine, or other sentence short of a conditional discharge, then the arrest may be sealed as soon as the defendant completes the term of the sentence and pays the fine and court-imposed surcharge if the court transmits the seal order. In sum there is no way to reliably track the subsequent criminal records of individuals whose first arrest terminates in a dismissal (except MJACD) or a non-criminal violation or infraction conviction.
This study therefore concentrates on those whose arrest terminated in a “marijuana adjournment in contemplation of dismissal” (MJACD), as defined in Criminal Procedure Law § 170.56 or Criminal Procedure Law § 210.46, because those individuals who enter the criminal justice system for low-level marijuana possession can be reliably tracked over time.
The quantitative data comes from New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), which collects data from the courts and maintains it for the state. Some of the arrest and disposition aggregate statistics were provided in the aggregate form by DCJS. The remaining quantitative data was provided as micro-level criminal history records of a specific cohort of misdemeanor arrestees. The micro-level data contains a de-identified identification number linking unique individuals to arrest and disposition events. Because DCJS provided de-identified records (that is, not identified by the official New York State Identification Number (NYSID) used in all court and corrections administration record-keeping and readily traceable to specific individuals), we were able to obtain sealed records of arrest incidents that did not terminate in a criminal conviction.
The file provided for each arrest event is called the “top charge” file, which means it lists only the highest-level criminal offense charged at the time of arrest and the highest-level criminal offense at the disposition and does not contain information on any other charges that may have also been included on the docket for a given case. Data reporting the arrest or conviction charged therefore represents the highest arrest or disposition charge on the docket, and each case may have had other lower-level charges attached to that docket. DCJS, and not the authors, coded the cases for “top charge” and information about their ranking algorithm is available upon request.
Definition of the MJACD 03-04 Cohort
We included in our cohort, anyone who:
- Received a MJACD from an arrest in the years 2003 and 2004
- (Arrest year, not disposition year, qualified a person for the cohort)
- Had no prior criminal convictions
- Had a top arrest charge of marijuana possession in the fifth degree (New York Penal Law § 221.10)
We counted subsequent arrests and convictions if they occurred after the date of the arrest that led to the first MJACD disposition. If a person had more than one MJACD, the date of first arrest was selected as the beginning date, after which all arrests and convictions were tabulated. We excluded subsequent arrest incidents that lacked arrest charge and disposition data.
The most recent date included in the DCJS data set was June 19, 2011. Since individuals entered the cohort at different times they were “at risk” of offending for different lengths of time. The earliest MJACD date was January 1, 2003 and the latest was December 31, 2004. Therefore the longest period of observation would be eight years, five months, ten days and the shortest would be six years, five months, eleven days.
Convictions include non-youthful offender adjudications to criminal offenses obtained via plea, verdict, or type unknown. Criminal offenses include only convictions for penal law-defined printable misdemeanor or felony offenses. Counts of convictions for criminal offenses do not include convictions for non-criminal violations or infractions.
New York State data does not contain information on out-of-state arrests or federal arrests, so later arrests for conviction count will not reflect criminal justice encounters in other jurisdictions.
Violent Felony Definition
Our definition of violent felonies tracks that used by DCJS as defined in NY Penal Law §§70.02 and 70.04, which sets forth the offenses defined as violent felony offenses for purposes of sentencing and statutorily required record-keeping by the DCJS. We also include in our definition of violent felonies offenses that the DCJS codes as “VFO-like class A-1 offenses not in VFO,” as well as felony convictions where there was an underlying violent felony offense, even if that offense was not the top conviction charge.
Injurious Misdemeanor Definition
Injurious Misdemeanors include all misdemeanor convictions for crimes in the following penal law sections:
130 Sex offenses
135 Kidnapping, Coercion
140 Burglary and Trespass only for the following subsections:
140.15 - Criminal trespass in the second degree
140.35 - Possession of burglar’s tools
165 Theft only for the following subsections:
165.05 - Unauthorized use of a vehicle in the second degree
165.09 - Auto stripping in the third degree
165.40 - Criminal possession of stolen property in the fifth degree
215 Contempt and tampering
260 Child or Elderly Endangerment
1192 VTL Driving Intox