Senate Republicans and Conservative Party Break With Top Law Enforcement Officials to Kill Legislation Clarifying Marijuana Possession Laws; Measure Supported by Cuomo, Bloomberg, NYPD Commissioner, District Attorneys Throughout State
Over 50,000 Needless Arrests Cost Taxpayers $75 million a Year, Undermine Ability of Youth to Gain Employment; Majority Leader Skelos and Conservative Party Leader Mike Long Apparently Believe Wasteful, Unlawful, Racially Biased Arrests is “Right Message” for “Youngsters”
Operations Order by Commissioner Kelly Has Proven To Be Ineffective; Advocates, Community Groups and Elected Officials Vow to Continue Fight for Legislation That Ensures Equity, Fairness and Fiscal Responsibility
Last night, lawmakers in Albany failed to reach agreement on legislation to reduce the staggering number of unlawful, biased arrests for marijuana possession in New York. The proposal, unveiled by Governor Andrew Cuomo two weeks ago and introduced in the Assembly by Assemblymember Hakeem Jeffries, was widely seen as a responsible measure to address the inconsistency and unfairness in the marijuana possession laws in New York. Yet Senate Republicans refused to take up the matter, appearing shaken and frightened by threats from Conservative Party Leader Mike Long, who declared he would pull the Conservative Party line from anyone who supported the measure. The Senate — in what can only be called a stunning failure of leadership — then refused to take up the legislation, undermining reform. Because of inaction in the Senate, tens of thousands of people, predominately young men of color, will continue to be needlessly funneled through the criminal justice system at an expense of tens of millions of dollars to state taxpayers and untold damage to the relationships between law enforcement and communities in New York.
The legislation is supported by dozens of groups, elected officials — and top law enforcement officials throughout the state. A sampling of statements by law enforcement officials provides a compelling overview of the unprecedented support for Governor Cuomo’s proposal:
- NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly called it “a balanced approach.” (June 4, 2012, Press Release, Gov. Cuomo office)
- Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, who published an op-ed in support of legislation, also said the measure would bring greater “safety and fairness” to the criminal justice system,” and called it “the right thing to do.” (June 4, 2012, Press Release, Gov. Cuomo’s office)
- Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes said the measure would “go a long way toward a more balanced approach to drug related offenses.” (June 4, 2012, Press Release, Gov. Cuomo)
- Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said the proposal “strikes the right appropriate balance between the needs of law enforcement and the concerns of the community,” and would “enhance the fair operation of our criminal justice system.” (June 4, 2012, Press Release, Gov. Cuomo office)
- Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson said the proposal would “make the law consistent and obviate the need for many arrests which erode the trust between the community and law enforcement.” (June 4, 2012, Press Release, Gov. Cuomo office)
- State Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, who ran for Attorney General on the Republican line, said the measure would allow NYPD to “reallocate some of its resources to address more serious crimes.” (June 4, 2012, Press Release, Gov. Cuomo office)
- Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice — the top law enforcement official in Sen. Dean Skelos’s district, called the proposal a “common sense reform,” and said the measure would “enhance community relationships with law enforcement,” calling such relationships “the most important tool we have in keeping neighborhoods safe.” (June 4, 2012, Press Release, Gov. Cuomo office)
- New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch said that “the NYC PBA is very supportive” of the measure as it would provide “clear and precise directions” to law enforcement officers. (June 4, 2012, Press Release, Gov. Cuomo office)
- Rochester Police Chief Jim Sheppard praised the measure and said it would stop the practice of needlessly “putting kids into the system which obviously if they get into the system it makes it hard for them to have gainful employment and that can create more crime for us.” (June 5, CBS News 8, Rochester)
The refusal of Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and the Senate to take up the matter, and Long’s staunch opposition to the measure represent a stunning break between top law enforcement officials in the state and the Senate Republicans and Conservative Party.
“The Senate Republicans have single-handedly decided to continue ruining tens of thousands of lives — mostly those of young people of color — every year. Opposing law enforcement and the clear political consensus in the state is not just heartless — it’s a political miscalculation that will come to haunt them,” said Dr. Divine Pryor, Executive Director of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions.
The governor’s proposal seeks to bring consistency and fairness to the states existing marijuana decriminalization law, which was passed in 1977. In a press conference today, Governor Cuomo indicated that the measure will not pass the legislature this session, and will have to be taken up in the months ahead.
“Even Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly have come out in support of this legislation. So what’s holding up the Senate from passing smart reforms that will eliminate the tens of thousands of unlawful arrests taking place in the city every year?” said Alfredo Carrasquillo, community organizer with VOCAL New York.
Marijuana was decriminalized in New York State in 1977 — and that law is still on the books. Burning marijuana in public or having marijuana visible in public, however, remains a crime. As clearly demonstrated in research and media reports, most of these arrests are the result of illegal searches and false charges by the NYPD, as part of its controversial stop-and-frisk practices. Most people arrested for marijuana possession are not smoking in public, but simply have a small amount in their pocket, purse or bag. As numerous news articles and research have demonstrated, the NYPD engages in unlawful practice of mischarging and arresting people for marijuana possession after an illegal search; or, the arrest occurs when the person complies with an NYPD officer’s directive to “empty their pockets.” Many people comply, emptying their pockets -- even though they’re not legally required to do so — thus making the marijuana “open to public view.” The police then arrest the person for burning or possession in public view. These arrests needlessly criminalizes young people — especially young people of color — and severely harms the relationship between law enforcement and the community.
The arrest statistics say it all. Just 34,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession from 1981 to 1995 — but in the last 15 years over 600,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession. Nearly 51,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2011 alone, far exceeding the total marijuana arrests from 1981-1995. Most of those arrested, nearly 85%, are Black and Latino, despite federal government data on drug use showing that whites use marijuana at higher rates. Most of these arrests have been shown to be unlawful — the result of illegal searches and false charges. Queens College Professor Dr. Harry Levine conducted a study of the arrests and found they cost taxpayers approximately $75 million every year.
NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly issued an operations order in September 2011 commanding officers to follow existing New York State law — the order directed officers to stop falsely charging people for possessing marijuana in public view if individuals removed marijuana from their pocket under the order of a police officer. Arrest figures released from New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services show that since the operations order issued by Commissioner Kelly, arrests for low-level marijuana arrests have fallen by only 13 percent in New York City since the same period last year — a disappointing drop considering the scale of NYPD’s criminal practice.
Last week, the New York City Council passed a resolution by an overwhelming margin calling for an end to racially biased, costly, unlawful arrests. The resolution, introduced by Council Members Melissa Mark-Viverito and Oliver Koppell, was co-sponsored by a majority of Council Members. The resolution came a day after hundreds of community activists went to Albany to deliver thousands of signatures to demand the New York State Senate pass legislation to decriminalize marijuana possession in public view.
“The New York Senate Republicans are doing what Republicans do best at the federal and local level–they are obstructing progress and paralyzing government. The Republican Conference in the State Senate is completely out of touch with our communities of color in New York City and because of their inaction, tens of thousands more of our young people of color will be arrested before the end of this year, saddling them with a criminal record,” said sponsor of the Council Resolution, Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito. “The Governor, our Mayor, the Police Commissioner, the City Council, five District Attorneys and criminal justice advocates are all on the same page here. Marijuana was decriminalized in 1977; all we are trying to do is close the ‘in public view’ loophole that is allowing thousands of unjust arrests of black and Latino youth in our communities.”
Majority Leader Skelos unintentionally made national headlines when he said the governor’s proposal would lead to people “just being able to walk around with 10 joints in each ear and it would only be a violation.” News outlets nationwide blasted and mocked the Majority Leader for the comical and improbable imagery. Today, Majority Leader Skelos says he simply opposes what already exists — decriminalization–seemingly deferring to the unelected Mr. Long about legislative matters of concern to New Yorkers.
“It wasn’t too long ago that we referred to the ‘three men in a room’ when discussing the leadership structure in Albany. Now when we talk about leadership in the Senate, we should talk about ‘one guy in Brooklyn’, said gabriel sayegh, New York State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “While we are disappointed by the lack of action, we’re not going anywhere. This campaign for reform has already scored a major victory by bringing this issue to the attention of New Yorkers and the entire country. We cannot and will not accept a situation where the laws are applied differently to different people based on their race or ethnicity or where they live. We’ll keep pushing for reform, for fairness, equality, and justice. Given the overwhelming support by law enforcement for this proposal, I think Majority Leader. Skelos and even Mr. Long will come to do what’s right.”
Press release from the Drug Policy Alliance