|The Human Cost of ‘Zero Tolerance’|
|Monday, 07 May 2012 15:51|
By Brent Staples for The NY Times
There is no proof that the zero-tolerance policing adopted by New York and other cities in the 1990’s had anything to do with the decline in violent crime across the nation. Crime also dropped in jurisdictions that did not use the approach.
Millions of people have been arrested under the policy for minor violations, like possession of small amounts of marijuana. And one thing is beyond dispute: this arrest-first policy has filled the courts to bursting with first-time, minor offenders who do not belong there and wreaked havoc with people’s lives. Even when cases are dismissed, people can be shadowed for years by error-ridden criminal records.
The human toll is evident in New York City, where last year 50,000 people — one every 10 minutes — were arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The city downplays the significance, saying these cases are typically dismissed and the record sealed if the person stays out of trouble for a year. But getting tangled in the court system is harrowing. And the record-keeping can be unreliable and far more porous than the city suggests.
An analysis by the Legal Action Center, which assists 2,500 people with criminal records each year, has found that nearly half of its clients’ rap sheets have errors. Defense lawyers say that too often the couts and police fail to report to the state about dismissals and other outcomes favorable to defendants.
As for “sealed” records, background-screening companies working for private employers can harvest data at the time of an arrest and there is no guarantee that they will update to reflect dismissals — or expunge the information when records are sealed by the courts. While it is illegal to exclude people from jobs based solely on arrest or convictions, unless there is a compelling business reason for doing so, many employers quickly write off applicants who are flagged in these databases.
New York City drove up its marijuana arrests — from just under 1,500 in 1980 to more than 50,000 a year today — despite the fact that the State Legislature in 1977 decriminalized possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana, making it a violation, roughly akin to a traffic ticket. The problem is that the Legislature made public display of any amount of marijuana a misdemeanor, which can lead to arrest, jail and a record that follows the person for years. And New York’s police have been repeatedly accused of arresting people for possession after forcing them to show “in public” the small amounts they had. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly tacitly admitted this practice last year, directing officers to make an arrest only when the drug really was in view.
Critics say the fact that 87 percent of those arrested are black or Hispanic suggests that the police are deliberately singling out minority citizens for arrests that push some of them permanently to the very margins of society.
An arrest, even without a conviction, can swiftly unleash disastrous personal consequences. Consider the 2011 case of a 26-year-old single mother from Brooklyn whose lawyers say she was arrested after the police forced her to reveal a small packet of marijuana hidden in her purse. The judge said the charges would be dismissed if she stayed out of trouble for a year. A week later, the woman had been fired from her job as a janitor with the New York City Housing Authority. She has not been rehired.
The city’s Housing Authority convenes a termination hearing when a tenant is arrested. The authority says no one is evicted for low-level marijuana arrests “in and of themselves.” But Steven Banks, attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society, which represents 30,000 people in minor marijuana arrests a year, says these cases often end with the leaseholder ejecting the person arrested — perhaps a son or grandson — to avoid eviction. People convicted of some misdemeanors cannot apply for public housing for three years; those convicted of violations are ineligible for two years.
Young parents have faced neglect accusations in family court after marijuana arrests, even if they are not ultimately charged with any crime. In a case described in The Times, a woman’s son and niece were removed from her home by child welfare workers after police found about a third of an ounce of marijuana — below the threshold for a misdemeanor — in a boyfriend’s backpack in her Bronx apartment. The district attorney declined to prosecute, but the children spent time in foster care, and her niece was not returned for over a year.
New York City’s overly zealous marijuana arrests, coupled with the unreliability and porousness of record-keeping, damage the lives of tens of thousands of people a year. The Legislature needs to fix this. It must drop the public-display distinction for marijuana, which invites far too many abuses. It should also press law enforcement officials and the court system to make sure that criminal records are more accurate to start with and that people who are victimized by errors have a plausible way of getting them corrected.
Employers and government agencies also have a responsibility here. They must not rush to their own judgment about minor offenders.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg needs to recognize that zero-tolerance policing is not the panacea his Police Department seems to think it is. The police need to spend more time tracking down serious crime and less on minor offenses. There is nothing minor about a record that can follow people for the rest of their lives.