In Allegheny County, black residents are arrested more, charged more, sit in jail longer, and pay more for misdemeanor marijuana possession offenses than white residents. That’s according to a new report from The Appeal, a team of journalists who focus on criminal justice in the United States. The report highlights the ongoing racial disparities in marijuana enforcement in Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh in particular. And its conclusions are especially striking in light of the city’s decriminalization of marijuana in 2015. Indeed, The Appeal’s findings show that despite progressive drug policy reforms, law enforcement and the criminal legal system are still geared against people of color.
Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, decriminalized cannabis in 2015. Part of the policy shift involved giving law enforcement a choice between arresting people for suspected marijuana offenses or giving them a citation. Further downstream the criminal legal system, prosecutors in Pennsylvania’s major cities enacted “decline to prosecute” policies for minor cannabis cases that went to trial.
Yet arrests for marijuana have increased since Pittsburgh enacted decriminalization policies. Many police departments are continuing to arrest rather than ticket suspected offenders. Analyzing all the criminal dockets filed in Allegheny County from 2016 to 2017, The Appeal broke down the 2,100-some cases where the top charge was possession of less than 30 grams of cannabis. They also looked at the thousands of arrests for minor possession police made over the same period. Here’s what they found.
Of the 2,100-plus cases in Allegheny County where the defendant received a misdemeanor possession charge, 51 percent of the people charged were black. According to the most recent U.S. census data from 2017, 13.4 percent of all Allegheny residents are black. And the dramatic racial disparity across the county is even worse in Pittsburgh. There, black people were the defendants in more than 400 of the 600 cases filed by the Pittsburgh Police Department. Black people comprised two-thirds of all marijuana cases, despite representing just 24.3 percent of the city’s population. Pittsburgh police charged black people for weed twice as much as white people.
In many ways, Pennsylvania is a national leader in efforts to end the racist enforcement of marijuana laws. Progressive District Attorney Larry Krasner is spear-heading reform efforts in Philadelphia, directing his office not to bring charges against those accused of possession and championing criminal justice efforts aimed at ending the system’s endemic racism. The Mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, is also publicly advocating for adult-use legalization as a way to redress the harm caused by criminalizing cannabis.
So how are police still arresting and charging black people for weed at rates much higher than white people? Are decriminalization and criminal legal reforms enough to end racial disparities in marijuana enforcement? The Appeal’s report provides some insight.
A significant portion of the misdemeanor possession cases that go to trial end up dismissed or with reduced charges. Very often, defendants simply end up paying the weed ticket police could have given them in the first place. But that doesn’t mean that their arrest is without consequences.
In Allegheny County, police can file and even resolve low-level offenses without having to take cases to the district attorney. And according to data compiled by The Appeal, police in Allegheny handled more than 90 percent of the marijuana cases they brought against defendants. Police handled them, that is, by reducing charges to a citation or dropping charges completely. And that means that prosecutors’ willingness not to prosecute minor weed cases doesn’t matter for the vast majority of suspects. Remarkably, just 2 percent of cases went to Allegheny County DA Stephen Zappala.
But even when police drop or reduce charges, the fact of arrest and booking has knock-down consequences that can follow a person for life. Furthermore, defendants unable to afford bail can sit in jail until the DA finally gets to their case. Jail time can result in job terminations, loss of property and assets. Defendants can even have their children taken away as they wait for trial. In short, the process itself, even if it results in dropped charges, is a serious punishment. And William and Mary Law School professor Jeffrey Bellin says police may still continue to make arrests in order to punish suspects with the process alone.
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