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Report: After Marijuana Decriminalization, Pittsburgh Still Targets People of Color

by High Times | Updated on 10.4.18

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.

In Decriminalized Pittsburgh, Police Arrest and Charge Black People For Weed Way More Than White People

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.

Is Decriminalization Enough To End Racial Disparities in Marijuana Enforcement?

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.

For Many, A Guilty Plea Is Still A Better Option Than Waiting for The DA

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.

The post Report: After Marijuana Decriminalization, Pittsburgh Still Targets People of Color appeared first on High Times.

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(18)
  • Judith
    10/04/2018
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    THIS IS A TRAGIC BARBARIC ABUSE OF POLICING POWER THAT MUST BE STOPPED IMMEDIATELY ON ALL LEVELS OF GOVERNMENT !! ANYONE FOUND RESPONSIBLE OR COMPLICIT REGARDLESS OF STATION MUST BE PROSECUTED TO THE FULLEST EXTENT OF THE LAW WITH NOT AN OUNCE OF LENIENCY !!!

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  • Esther
    10/04/2018
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    Why is this not a surprise. Another disgraceful travesty.

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  • Riley
    10/05/2018
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    The Democrats have controlled Pittsburgh for a while. Why don't you ask them why nothing changes and things only seemingly get worse.

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  • Leon
    10/04/2018
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    And this is why Congress needs to step up and legalize. You either support your constituents or you don’t. It’s their choice to consume or not and should bear the responsibility of that decision, not the government. Alcohol, tobacco, trans fats, or sitting too much are at least similar health risks all of which are legal.

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  • Poli.Sci
    10/05/2018
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    The sad thing is, this article is meant to open the eyes of the population to perceived injustices, but I also understand that law enforcement try’s their best at being impartial. At the same time, known drug areas help contribute to the rise in citations and arrests, and this can happen in predominantly colored areas. At the same time, this report also does not mention of those 51% of cases sent to court if they were recurring offenses. Coincidentally, this has nothing to do with perceived injustices but a crack down on the illegal selling or possession of drugs of larger quantities. So in fact, a white person could still be given a citation for the same offense but because he had less of a quantity on him, does not mean he or she gets arrested. Think logically people and read between the lines, don’t just get upset at the words written down on the screen.

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  • John
    10/04/2018
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    Decriminalize marijuana. And End the RACIST HARASSMENT!

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  • David
    10/04/2018
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    Trump has unleashed white supremacy and racism at level no seen since Jim Crow. Why is anyone surprised at this? What is appalling is that no one steps forward to change it.

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  • Richard
    10/05/2018
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    Racism in America has seen a sad and tragic resurgence with the trump administration. It is a pathetic legacy to leave for a president who did not win the popular vote.

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  • John
    10/04/2018
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    Everyone should be treated equally. Of course if whites are doing more drugs then they should be arrested more often and vice versa. Blacks should definitely not be targeted. Period.

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  • James
    10/04/2018
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    If you state says it’s illegal then abide by the law Lazy Potheads!

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  • Marc
    10/04/2018
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    This is where the lack of a functioning DOJ is felt. Pittsburgh, remember this when you vote

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  • Dave
    10/05/2018
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    Brett k. Said you you are innocent until you are prove guilty and justice is equal under the law, he didn't say who it applied to. Black residents are arrested more, charged more, sit in jail longer, and pay more for misdemeanor marijuana possession offenses than white residents. Just think if they were elitist.

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  • Deepstate
    10/05/2018
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    They need a Ombudsman to over see these police officers and fire their butts for their racist arrests!! Another shit hole state comes to light!!

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  • Walter
    10/04/2018
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    Racism was the primary reason that marijuana was criminalized originally. Looks like nothing has changed in Pennsylvania. 🤬🤬🤬

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  • Joel
    10/05/2018
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    this is what happens when democrats control your county

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  • FreedomPatriot
    10/05/2018
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    David you claim “Trump has unleashed white supremacy and racism at level no seen since Jim Crow.” What exactly are you referring to by the comment above? Do you have facts to back up you allegations or is this just more baseless slander?

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