In what they hope will be ground-breaking legislation, this week New York State Senator Daniel Squadron and Assemblyman Karim Camara announced the Fairness and Equity Act, a bill offering comprehensive reform for New York’s flawed marijuana decriminalization laws. This prospective legislation, a response to the New York Police Department’s controversial stop and frisk policing tactics, seeks to reverse decades of misdemeanor arrests of blacks and Latinos.
“This is a basic issue of fairness—you shouldn’t be able to predict who will be charged with a crime based on race and ethnicity,” said Senator Squadron at a rally Wednesday in front of City Hall in Manhattan. “Today, marijuana possession almost never means a criminal record for white New Yorkers, but could easily mean a criminal record for many black and Latino New Yorkers who are actually less likely to possess marijuana.”
Even though smoking a joint in public was decriminalized in New York City in 1977, for years the law has been selectively applied. Anyone arrested for “private” possession of small amounts of pot—that is, in your home or on your person—would be issued a violation. Anyone arrested for “public” possession—that is, if the marijuana is out and viewable in public, as it would be if someone is asked to empty their pockets during a stop and frisk—would likely be charged with a misdemeanor.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, over the past 20 years approximately 600,000 New Yorkers have been arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana in public view with many of those arrests a result of stop and frisk crime sweeps.
From 2002 and 2012, an astounding 87 percent of the people arrested for marijuana possession in the city were either black or Latino.
Because of this “in public view” discrepancy, thousands of New Yorkers are saddled with criminal records, a devastating collateral consequence of these racially biased arrests.
In calling for reforms that not only end racially biased marijuana arrests but also address the bias in the NY criminal justice system, Assemblyman Camara, Senator Squadron and community advocates seek what may be a blueprint for future legislation addressing racial disparities.
The Fairness and Equity Act calls for a Process for Racial and Ethnic Impact Statements. According to information supplied by Senator Squadron’s office, “The impact statement would provide information to help legislators determine if a proposed bill would disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities.”
That is, a pathway to address racial bias in the NY criminal justice system, where blacks and Latinos are many more times likely to be arrested than whites.
Squadron was emphatic about why the Fairness and Equity Act is the right bill at the right time.
“This bill will replace today’s inequitable marijuana enforcement, address the disparate impact that existing law has had on black and Latino New Yorkers, and help prevent these injustices in the future.”