Police arrest more people for possession of small amounts of cannabis than they do for all violent crimes combined, a new study reports. The news comes even as states increasingly move toward drug and criminal justice reform and confirms widespread accusations of racial profiling in pot busts.
The study was published in October by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, two groups that work toward marijuana reforms. It found that police and other law enforcement officers made 575,000 arrests in 2015 for simple cannabis possession, about 14 percent more than the 506,000 arrests on violent charges including murder, kidnapping, rape, and aggravated assault.
The study also confirmed the consistent results of other studies showing a large discrepancy between the marijuana arrest rate for whites and the rate at which African Americans are busted on the same charges. Both races use the drug at roughly the same rate (12 percent), yet blacks are arrested far more often.
Endless problems for minorities
This leads to unending problems for minority communities and the criminal justice system. Along with overcrowded prisons, pot busts typically result in permanent criminal rap sheets that follow convicted offenders for the rest of their lives.
These records can make it much harder to find work, rent housing, or obtain government benefits. And for most people, they are nearly impossible to expunge.
Dianne Jones, a 45-year-old New Orleans resident, told The New York Times in October that she was arrested in 2014 on a minor possession charge and spent 10 days behind bars because she could not afford the $2,500 bail. Her family was forced to pawn a television to post bond. Jones, who is black, said she was almost arrested again when she couldn’t afford fees and other court costs.
She said she was initially picked up by police while carrying $10 worth of pot. A local community group had to raise more than $100 to keep her from going back to jail for failure to pay the court costs stemming from that arrest.
“What happened to me shouldn’t happen to anybody,” she said.
Rap sheet makes finding employment difficult
But it happens across the United States every day. The Times quoted a 31-year-old Louisiana parolee named Cory, also African American, who said a small-time possession conviction has kept him from finding a job for the 14 months since he left prison. Even fast-food restaurants won’t hire him, he said.
“I’ve kind of stopped trying,” Cory said.
Tess Borden, who authored the study, noted that even as all crime rates plunged 36 percent between 1995 and 2015, the number of all drug possession busts climbed 13 percent. Those arrests include simple marijuana charges.
“Most people don’t think drug possession is the No. 1 public safety concern, but that’s what we’re seeing,” Borden said.
The racial disparities stem from multiple factors, experts say, including the fact that police departments in recent years have focused intently on “high crime” neighborhoods to suppress petty offenses such as vandalism and drug use in the hopes that more serious crimes will also drop.
This “broken window” approach can reduce violent crime, but it also leads to massive over-incarceration of minority groups. The increasing numbers of drug arrests in these neighborhoods then feeds back into the police perception that they are indeed “high crime” areas in need of aggressive law enforcement.
“It is selective enforcement, and the example I like to use is that you have all sorts of drug use inside elite college dorms, but you don’t see the police busting through doors,” said Inimai M. Chettiar, director of the Justice Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.
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