Brooklyn DA Shifts Weight Away From Low-Level Marijuana Cases

Kenneth Thompson, the district attorney of Brooklyn, has announced that his office will not prosecute most low-level marijuana cases because, he says, "we are pouring money into an endeavor that produces no public safety benefit." Melissa Block talks to Thompson for more.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The district attorney of Brooklyn, New York has announced that his office will not prosecute most low-level marijuana cases. Kenneth Thompson explained his decision by saying, we are pouring money and effort into an endeavor that produces no public safety benefit for the community. And DA Thompson joins me now to talk about the new policy. Welcome to the program.

KENNETH THOMPSON: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: Explain for us first, who qualifies? Who won't be prosecuted under this new policy?

THOMPSON: Melissa, those individuals who have been arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana in Brooklyn who have never been arrested before, who have no criminal record. The reason why we are targeting those individuals is because thousands of people are coming into the criminal justice system in Brooklyn every year for possession of small amounts of marijuana. And the vast majority of those cases are being dismissed by judges - two-thirds of the cases are being dismissed. So what we want to do is to redirect those limited law enforcement resources to more serious crimes like gun violence.

BLOCK: Who will still be prosecuted under this new policy?

THOMPSON: Under this policy, folks who publicly smoke marijuana, especially with families and children. We are going to look at those cases because we can't allow that. Those who have extensive criminal records, we are not just going to decline to prosecute those cases. And so when you hear about the policy some people don't quite understand. They may think that it's an open invitation for people to come to Brooklyn to use marijuana. It is not. We're still going to prosecute marijuana cases. It's just that we're going to look at the cases and prosecute those marijuana cases that should be prosecuted.

BLOCK: You've talked about the burden on resources and available staff and money to handle these cases. Is there also a broader issue that you're concerned with here which has to do with racial disparity of who was swept up?

THOMPSON: If you look at the statistics, the vast majority of the people who have been arrested and are being arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana in Brooklyn are people of color. I believe it's close to 90 percent. I have to make sure that our criminal justice system is based on fairness. And so I am interested in making sure that we do all we can to deal with violent crime but that we also don't unfairly burden people with criminal records.

BLOCK: You mentioned in your memo outlining this policy, concerns about the lingering after-effects on those who have been prosecuted in areas like jobs and housing and education. What are your concerns there, exactly?

THOMPSON: Melissa, my concern is when a young person is arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana that is a non-violent, minor offense. And if we saddle such a person with a criminal record that person is going to have difficulty later getting a job, possibly getting financial aid to go to college, being able to find housing. And we are determined to keep people safe. But we also cannot, you know, lock up everyone and prosecute everyone. We have to understand that there's consequences here.

BLOCK: We have seen in New York City a really dramatic drop in crime and a lot of that seems to be predicated on the broken windows theory - right? - that arrests for small infractions prevent more serious crime. That's been the backbone of New York City policing for a long time. Are you getting pushback from the NYPD, from folks there who say this is the wrong message to be sending?

THOMPSON: Well, I'm not going to say I'm getting pushback from the NYPD. We are partners with the NYPD. We share a mission to protect the public, and so our interests are similar. But our interests are not identical. As Brooklyn DA, I have an obligation to make sure that the criminal justice system operates based on fairness towards all in Brooklyn.

BLOCK: I have been talking with Kenneth Thompson. He is the district attorney of Brooklyn, New York. Mr. Thompson, thanks so much.

THOMPSON: Thank you so much.

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