|New York City is the world “leader” in marijuana arrests. And if you don’t have bail money, you could be spending a couple of weeks in jail for a misdemeanor offense.|
Thousands of people charged with low-level marijuana “crimes” in New York City spend days in jail for these misdemeanors, not because they have been found guilty, but because they are too poor to post bail, according to a report released on Friday.
And faced with the choice of pleading guilty and getting out of jail, or fighting the charges and staying behind bars while awaiting trial, many of the defendants choose to plead guilty, the report said.
The report, which examines the bail conditions for people charged with non-felonies like smoking marijuana in public or jumping a subway turnstile, found the overwhelming majority of defendants in cases in which the bail was set at $1,000 or less were unable to pay and were sent to jail — where they remained, on average, for more than two weeks, reports Mosi Secret at The New York Times.
The report comes as the number of arrests for low-level misdemeanors such as marijuana — often called “quality-of-life” crimes — continues to rise. The focus on marijuana arrests, which began under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, continues under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, despite marijuana being decriminalized statewide in New York.
Even worse, the New York City Police Department reportedly often uses deceptive tactics in arresting marijuana smokers, even telling them outright lies, in order to then charge them with additional infractions like “displaying marijuana in public.”
Advocacy Group Finds 87 Percent Of Low-Bail Defendants Remain In Jail
|Graphic: Mr. HSIE|
Human Rights Watch, which usually focuses on abuses abroad, got the data on non-felony defendants arrested in New York City in 2008.
In 19,137 cases from that year, bail was set at $1,000 or less. The report found that 87 percent of the defendants in those cases did not post bail and were sent to jail to await trial, where they remained for an average of 15.7 days.
“Here we are locking people up for want of a couple of hundred dollars,” said Jamie Fellner, senior counsel with Human Rights Watch’s domestic program.
“Pretrial liberty should not be conditioned on the size of your bank account,” Fellner said.
According to the report, many of the poorer defendants may have pleaded guilty at arraignment for sentences with no jail time, simply to avoid being behind bars while waiting for their trial.
“The client is placed with a choice of staying out of jail and being on Rikers Island and fighting their case,” said Robin Steinberg, director of the Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit group providing legal representation to Bronx residents charged with crimes.
“Almost anybody would plead guilty,” Steinberg said. “It creates a pressure on poor people in the criminal justice system for them to plead guilty without regard to whether they were guilty or not guilty.”
Not surprisingly, prosecutors denied that they were requesting high bail amounts to pressure low-income defendants to plead guilty.
“Pressure to get a defendant to plea is not a factor in setting bail on Staten Island,” claimed Daniel M. Donovan, that county’s district attorney.
But the district attorney of Brooklyn, Charles J. Hynes, said the report highlights an important issue.
“My office is committed to request bail only when it will ensure a defendant’s return to court to face criminal charges, and never solely on the basis of the defendant’s inability to pay,” he claimed.
Racial Disparities Persist In Skyrocketing NYC Marijuana Arrests
|Photo: Street Knowledge Media|
|Racial disparities persist in New York City marijuana arrests|
Since New York state decriminalized marijuana in 1977, possession of less than seven-eighths of an ounce of pot is a violation, much like a traffic ticket. One can be ticketed and fined $100 for cannabis possession, but not fingerprinted and jailed, reports Harry G. Levine at AlterNet.
However, despite that law, since 1997 the New York City Police Department has arrested 430,000 people for possessing small amounts of marijuana, mostly teenagers and young people in their twenties, making New York City the marijuana arrest capital of the world.
In order to get around the constitutional restrictions on searches and find a valid reason to make an arrest, police commonly use deception.
A typical ruse is for police to stop someone near a suspected marijuana sales site and tell them something like “We saw you coming out of the weed spot. If you have anything on you that you’re not supposed to have, give it to me and all I’ll give you is a ticket.”
If the suspect falls for the ruse and hands over his marijuana, he is then arrested for “displaying it in public view.”
Though hardly any people charged with misdemeanor pot possession receive jail sentences, they often have to spend days in jail awaiting trial if they choose to fight the charges and are unable to make bail.
The marijuana possession arrests first skyrocketed under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, then continued under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. By 2008 Bloomberg had outstripped Giuliani in pot possession arrests, and had arrested more people for marijuana than any other mayor in the world.
The NYPD has long arrested young blacks and Latinos for pot possession at far higher rates than whites. In 2008, blacks were about 26 percent of New York City’s population, but more than 54 percent of the people arrested for marijuana possession were black. Latinos were 27 percent of New Yorkers, but 33 percent of the pot arrestees.
Whites were more than 35 percent of the city’s population, but less than 10 percent of the people arrested for possessing marijuana.