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After Pittsburgh Decriminalizes Pot, Black People Are Still Disproportionately Charged With Possession

About 51 percent of the people charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana in Allegheny County are Black.

Photo Illustration by Anagraph / Photo by Andrey Pavlov/Stocksy

After Pittsburgh Decriminalizes Pot, Black People Are Still Disproportionately Charged With Possession

About 51 percent of the people charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana in Allegheny County are Black.

Around 10:15 p.m. on Jan. 11, 2016, David (not his real name) was in the back seat of a car on the streets of Pittsburgh when the driver failed to use her turn signal when exiting a parking lot.

Pittsburgh police pulled up behind the vehicle and began a traffic stop that would end with the 24-year-old Black man and one of his friends facing criminal charges.

David was searched, and police discovered he had a clear plastic bag with what they believed was marijuana in his shoe. He and a friend were taken into custody and charged with misdemeanor possession of a small amount of marijuana. Because he had an outstanding warrant, David’s bail was set at $10,000 cash. His charges were ultimately reduced to summary disorderly conduct and he was ordered to pay a little more than $150 in fines and fees.

Though Pittsburgh decriminalized marijuana in late 2015, David is among hundreds of people who have been criminally charged with only possession of a small amount of marijuana in the past two years. Black residents make up most of Allegheny County’s prosecutions for misdemeanor marijuana possession, according to The Appeal’s analysis of these charges. Even after the decriminalization ordinance gave officers the option to treat possession of a small amount of marijuana as a summary offense similar to a traffic citation rather than a misdemeanor, Pittsburgh leads the county in these criminal charges.

The Appeal reviewed all criminal charging dockets filed in magisterial district judge offices in Allegheny County in 2016 and 2017 and found roughly 2,102 cases where defendants were charged with misdemeanor possession of a small amount of marijuana—defined as 30 grams or less—with a possible additional charge of possession of drug paraphernalia.

Any case where the defendant was initially charged with another criminal offense, vehicle code violation or any drug crime other than possession of marijuana or drug paraphernalia was excluded from the review of records.

About 51 percent of the people charged in these cases were Black, according to The Appeal’s review. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, just 13 percent of the county’s population is Black.

More than 600 cases were filed by Pittsburgh Police Department, and more than 400 of those cases were filed against Black defendants. That is twice as many cases as were filed against white defendants.

While the misdemeanor charge generally does not carry a jail sentence, a conviction for possession of a small amount of marijuana can have lasting consequences, like barring someone from receiving college financial aid or triggering a driver’s license suspension.

Many of these cases were ultimately reduced to summary disorderly conduct or public drunkenness. But even when these charges are ultimately reduced or dismissed, defendants are fingerprinted, entered into the system, and later must explain or expunge their arrest record.

Though it’s only the second most populous county in Pennsylvania, Allegheny leads the state in the number of arrests for possession of marijuana. In 2016, police in Allegheny County made more than 2,100 arrests for possession of a small amount of marijuana, according to the Pennsylvania State Police Uniform Crime Report.

Arrests for marijuana have actually risen since decriminalization went into effect, and police departments can still choose not to abide by the ordinance. In most counties in Pennsylvania, including Allegheny, police are able to file criminal charges and even resolve low-level offenses without consulting the district attorney first.

Police handled more than 90 percent of the cases identified by The Appeal, which were disposed of early in the process by either reducing the charges to a summary citation or dropping the charges altogether.

Only about 2 percent reached Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala’s office.

In those cases, both Black and white defendants faced roughly the same likelihood of being sentenced to either probation or jail, but Black defendants on average were ordered to pay about $50 more than white defendants.

David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, told The Appeal that the disparity is most likely a result of unequal enforcement. Black and white people use marijuana at roughly the same rate, but Harris said there is most likely heavier police presence in communities of color, which leads to police detecting and arresting for these low-level offenses more there than in predominantly white communities.

“It’s not about who offends, but it’s about where the enforcement is placed,” Harris said.

The disparate racial impact has prompted other district attorneys in Pennsylvania and beyond to decline prosecution of these kinds of cases. In February, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner announced that his office would no longer prosecute marijuana possession cases. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance dismissed more than 3,000 open marijuana possession cases in September. He told reporters this was an effort to “even out racial disparities” and “right-size” the criminal justice system.

Zappala, a Democrat, supported Pittsburgh’s decriminalization ordinance in 2015, praising Philadelphia’s version at the time: “Addressing ‘small amounts’ as a civil matter with fines in Philadelphia has reduced the 4,000 arrests annually for this offense by 73 percent, thus diverting limited assets to addressing other types of crimes.”

He even wrote a letter to then-Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay pledging to “work with you to try to accomplish what the Mayor and City Council would like to see done.” But his office has done little to ensure the ordinance is actually enforced. Michael Manko, a spokesperson for Zappala, placed the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of police agencies.

Manko rejected the idea that the district attorney’s office sets policy for law enforcement in the county, and referred questions about the cause of the racial disparity to the police departments.

“Are you suggesting that the DA should tell municipalities that if simple possession of marijuana and paraphernalia are the only charges they have during an arrest that they should decline filing, particularly if the individual is African American?” he said.

The Pittsburgh Police Department did not respond to request for comment.

Though most of these cases don’t make it to the DA’s office, making a public decision to not prosecute these cases, as Krasner did, would send a signal to law enforcement how to prioritize these cases and eliminate incentives for defendants to accept any plea offer before the case reaches the DA.

If the person knows his or her case will be dismissed later, there is little reason to plead guilty even if the penalty is as minor as paying a fine.

Furthermore, the delay between law enforcement agencies could be motivation enough for the police to continue making arrests, said Fordham University law professor John Pfaff. As William and Mary Law School professor Jeffrey Bellin points out in his recent paper “The Power of Prosecutors,” even if a prosecutor decides to dismiss all marijuana cases, that does not stop police from continuing to make arrests. These arrests can lead to the defendant sitting in jail until the prosecutor dismisses the case.

“It’s certainly possible that if DAs are slow to dismiss the charges, and the police view whatever time is spent in jail pending dismissal as an ‘appropriate’ punishment, then the police may still keep making arrests–a classic example of the ‘the process is the punishment,’” Pfaff said.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel Won't Seek A Third Term. These Movements Are A Big Reason.

Protesters blasting everything from punitive prosecutors to police brutality should be remembered for their role in upsetting the Windy City's political status quo.

A demonstrator protesting in 2015 over the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago. Former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with murder in the 2014 death of 17-year-old McDonald.
Photo illustration by Anagraph/ Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel Won't Seek A Third Term. These Movements Are A Big Reason.

Protesters blasting everything from punitive prosecutors to police brutality should be remembered for their role in upsetting the Windy City's political status quo.

On Sept. 4, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he would not seek re-election. Many local activists and organizers celebrated the news. But with a race dominated by establishment candidates, including former Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy and Paul Vallas, a former CEO of Chicago Public Schools who is a veteran of New Orleans’ racist charter school system and a longtime advocate of school privatization, others insisted the celebrations were premature.  

I was among those celebrating, because, for Chicago’s grassroots organizers, the moment was well-earned. Though I would be troubled that in the days afterward many of the key stories behind Emanuel’s downfall were being clipped from the public narrative, despite strong, continuing evidence of their impact.

There are movements that should not be forgotten when the history of Emanuel’s Chicago is told: the Mental Health Movement, which fought Emanuel’s devastating attacks on public mental health care; the Dyett hunger strikers, who prevented a local high school from being shuttered; parents who occupied their children’s schools in the battle against Emanuel’s mass school closures.

Movements against state violence also had a tremendous impact on the Emanuel administration. Conservatives have seized upon Chicago’s often-exaggerated murder rate as a signifier of “Black on Black” crime, but for those who live here, intra-community violence is part of a larger continuum of harm, and cannot be separated from violence imposed by the state. It is therefore impossible to understand the story Emanuel’s two terms as mayor without examining protest movements that challenged the violence of his police force.

As an organizer and a movement journalist, I contributed to these moments and also worked to document them. Given that perspective, I believe that these campaigns and movement moments should be preserved for the historical record.

‘Reparations now’

Between 1972 and 1991, over 100 Black men were tortured by the Chicago police under the infamous leadership of Commander Jon Burge, who died at the age of 70 on Sept. 19. The city has paid $120 million to settle claims related to torture allegations against Burge and his officers, but a true tally of those affected may never be known.

In 2010, a group called Chicago Torture Justice Memorials began organizing to seek justice for the survivors of police torture and to memorialize their suffering. In 2012, the group drafted a reparations ordinance including demands for financial compensation for victims as well as specialized counseling services and free tuition at city colleges for survivors and their immediate families. The document also called for a monument to survivors of police torture and an addition to the public school curriculum that would reflect the experiences of torture survivors. It seemed like an impossible set of demands—but as organizer Mariame Kaba stated at the time, it was “a transformative document” worth fighting for.

The campaign for reparations dogged Emanuel as he campaigned for re-election in 2015, turning the lobby outside his office into a pop-up art exhibit about police torture and interrupting his day-to-day activities. One activist ambushed him while he was enjoying some ice cream. Organizers also staged mock votes on city trains, in which voters chose between Emanuel and reparations. Politically vulnerable, and hampered by the scrutiny of the media and his opponent, Jesús “Chuy” García, Emanuel could do little to defend himself.

On a cold night in February that year, a group of protesters amassed outside Emanuel’s home, lifting a large, lighted message that read “REPARATIONS NOW.” There was a visible reaction inside the home. Blinds were closed and lights went out. After Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term was announced, a source close to him claimed that protests outside the mayor’s family home were a major stressor and a serious consideration as he pondered a re-election bid. It has also been noted in the media that Emanuel would most likely face another runoff if he sought a third term—a prediction that probably troubled Emanuel, given the beating he took from activists during his runoff against Garcia.

The strongest crusaders for the ordinance were, of course, the torture survivors themselves. Their stories were nightmarish, moving and profoundly articulated. Darrell Cannon was subjected to three mock executions with a shotgun before his genitals were shocked with a cattle prod. A plastic bag was placed over Anthony Holmes’s head while he was subjected to electric shocks from a crude device that Burge operated himself. Students and artists, moved by their narratives, created and exhibited work that fueled a moral reckoning. By the time the city agreed to a negotiated version of the ordinance, a narrative had been forged that could not be undone—one that has now been written into the curriculum of Chicago’s city schools.

With the early momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement at its back, the reparations campaign saw victory in 2015, after leveraging Emanuel’s vulnerability in a mayoral runoff. On May 6, 2015, the Chicago City Council passed the reparations ordinance which established a $5.5 million fund for Burge’s victims and provided free tuition at  city colleges for survivors and their families. In May 2017, the Chicago Torture Justice Center, which “seeks to address the traumas of police violence and institutionalized racism through access to healing and wellness services,” opened on the city’s South Side as part of the reparations package.

‘16 shots and a cover-up’

In October 2014, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke. Over a year later, video of McDonald’s killing was released. Emanuel along with other officials, including then State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, withheld the video from the public until after Emanuel had secured his second term. In a hotly contested race, many questioned whether Emanuel could have defeated Garcia if the images of McDonald being killed—as he was walking away from Van Dyke—had been broadcast during the campaign. Garcia has continued to ascend politically, and is currently running for U.S. Congress in Illinois’ 4th District.

The court-ordered release of the video of McDonald’s death gave rise to massive demonstrations led by Black youth that electrified the city for weeks. During one protest, participants shut down the city’s most popular downtown shopping destinations, including Macy’s, on Black Friday in 2015, costing retailers 25 to 50 percent of their projected sales on one of the busiest shopping days of the year. “Today, there is no shopping on Michigan Avenue,” said one protester. “Because Laquan McDonald won’t have a Christmas.” Unsatisfied by the first-degree murder charge filed against Van Dyke on the day the video was released, most protesters also echoed demands for the resignations of Emanuel, then-police superintendent Garry McCarthy, and Alvarez, chanting “16 shots and a cover-up”—a refrain that follows Emanuel to this day.

A week after the video McDonald’s death was made public, Emanuel, who had previously defended McCarthy, fired him in an effort to stem public outrage. And now Van Dyke is on trial in a Cook County courtroom, in McDonald’s killing. Chicago activists have held vigil outside the courthouse where the trial is taking place and say they will continue to do so until a verdict is rendered.


In early 2016, a coalition of young Black people organized the #ByeAnita campaign to hold Alvarez responsible for her role in the cover-up of McDonald’s killing, for her complicity with police violence, and for her aggressive prosecutions of Black people for acts of self-defense such as Naomi Freeman, who was charged with first-degree murder after she ran over her abusive partner with a minivan. Back then, most incumbent prosecutors were either easily re-elected and or ran unopposed. But protesters were undeterred because as Tess Raser, who worked on the #ByeAnita campaign, told me at the height of the effort, Emanuel “conspired with State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez during his own re-election campaign to cover up the police murder of Laquan McDonald—a life that to Emanuel, Alvarez, and [Hillary] Clinton did not matter—and any politician who supports him is implicated in it.”

The #ByeAnita campaign was characterized by relentless confrontation. Alvarez’s movements were tracked online through the hashtag #WheresAnita; her campaign events also faced repeated interruptions. On election eve, 16 banner drops highlighting her harms against the community were staged throughout the city—one for each bullet that struck McDonald.

“People need to be aware that Anita Alvarez argues for maximum penalties against young people, in juvenile court, as a matter of policy,” organizer Kaleb Autman, then just 14 years old, told me, “and people need to understand the effect that has on children and on our communities.”

Operating on a budget of less than $1,000, young Black organizers from groups like BYP 100, Assata’s Daughters, and Fearless Leading played a pivotal role in bringing down Alvarez, who was defeated by Kim Foxx in March 2016. Particularly pionering was the #ByeAnita campaign’s focus on accountability for prosecutors, rather than endorsing Foxx. “Kim Foxx did not win this campaign,” Raser said. “Anita Alvarez lost this campaign because we pushed this city to see what Anita Alvarez has been doing to this city and its people.”

In the last year, as young activists have squared off with Emanuel and the City Council, they have warned “Don’t believe us? Go ask Anita.” Indeed, the specter of Alvarez’s ouster, and the relentless nature of the campaign to remove her was most likely on Emanuel’s mind as he decided whether to run for a third term in a race that would unfold as McDonald’s killer was being tried, reopening the wounds that led so many into the streets.

The #ByeAnita campaign resonated far beyond Chicago as incumbent prosecutors and other establishment candidates are now being challenged—and defeated—across the country, often on similar issues that drove Alvarez’s loss, such as police shootings.

The culmination

Organizing against police violence in a city like Chicago is a complex project. “It was the combination of sustained and varied resistance against every single attack against the community waged by Rahm,” Black Lives Matter Chicago organizer Aislinn Pulley told me, “that collectively made it politically infeasible for Rahm to run for a third term.”

Some of those attacks included the killing of Rekia Boyd by an off-duty police officer in 2012 as she made her way home from a party—a case that helped seal Alvarez’s fate; the 2014 police killing, just days before McDonald’s death, of Ronald “Ronnieman” Johnson, whose mother has led a fight for justice; and Emanuel’s attempt in 2017 to spend $95 million on a new police academy while his austerity policies continue to punish Chicago’s most vulnerable communities, spurring the #NoCopAcademy movement.

Emanuel hoped that the story of his tenure would not be written by such protests. But every attempt he made to shape his history was interrupted by the storytelling of movements that would not allow the violence of his policies to be erased. The most impactful of these efforts drew clear connections between Emanuel’s austerity measures, police violence and the intra-community violence incubated by conditions that city officials help cultivate.  

In July, Emanuel boasted “I made a few phone calls” after a highway was shut down for a peace march led by his longtime friend, the anti-violence activist Father Michael Pfleger. The event was framed as civil disobedience but Emanuel’s comments revealed it to be effectively a protest managed by the state. At the time, some activists believed that Emanuel was attempting to co-opt protest as a means to gloss over his past harms to protesters and perhaps even pave the way for a third-term mayoral run. In hindsight, however, it seems more likely that the event was yet another example of legacy shaping. The image of Father Pfleger, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Emanuel’s current police superintendent marching arm-in-arm, amid a large crowd, made for a picture-perfect protest moment. But a week later, Emanuel’s police gunned down a South Side barber, Harith Augustus, launching yet another rebellion by the community.

“McCarthy resigned, Jason Van Dyke was indicted and on the eve of Van Dyke’s trial, Mayor Emanuel decided not to run for re-election,” Frank Chapman, director of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, told me.  “One doesn’t have to be a political analyst to connect the dots here. Rahm knew that what he managed to hide in the last election would be staring him in the face in this one. Being the political coward that he is he chose not to run.”

Emanuel recently announced that after leaving office he will be writing a book called The Nation City: Why Mayors Run the World for the prestigious New York publishing house Alfred A Knopf. His publisher says the book will focus on “effective governing in a time of historic gridlock”—a curious theme, given his dismal track record on everything from criminal justice to education. But while Emanuel pens a post hoc effort to reclaim his own story, Chicago organizers will be working hard to prevent another mayor like Emanuel from taking office.

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NYC Prosecutors Are Stoking Fear About the Mass Bailout, But Their Arguments Don’t Add Up

District attorneys’ comments belie the true purpose of bail in New York and ignore the safety risks of jail itself.

Rikers Island
U.S. Geological Survey

NYC Prosecutors Are Stoking Fear About the Mass Bailout, But Their Arguments Don’t Add Up

District attorneys’ comments belie the true purpose of bail in New York and ignore the safety risks of jail itself.

Throughout October, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights foundation will be working to bail out hundreds of people from New York City’s jails. The organization originally planned to target two facilities in the city’s sprawling Rikers Island jail complex: “Rosie’s,” or the Rose M. Singer Center, which detains women, and the troubled Robert N. Davoren Complex, which had held boys ages 16-17. As of Monday, the city had moved the teens to a juvenile facility to comply with the state’s “Raise the Age” law, although they appear to remain as eligible for bail as before. That leaves roughly 250 women who are eligible for bail in Rosie’s, and fewer than 100 teenagers who are eligible in the new location.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, law enforcement officials quickly assailed the proposal. The president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, Elias Husamudeen, immediately raised the specter of those released committing crimes while on bail, as did four of the five elected district attorneys in New York City (Michael McMahon of Staten Island weighed in later). The prosecutors all suggested that the bailout was jeopardizing witnesses and victims, with Queens DA Richard Brown simply saying, “It is clearly a threat to public safety.”

Such an aggressive response by law enforcement to what is ultimately a small-scale proposal is completely predictable. Their arguments, however, are deeply problematic.

Let’s just start with the fact that New York is one of four states in the country where prosecutors and judges cannot take a defendant’s likelihood of committing another crime into account when setting bail, which is intended solely to ensure appearance at trial. So when Mayor Bill de Blasio’s spokesperson says the mayor supports bailing out those who “don’t pose a public safety risk,” she is essentially admitting that the mayor’s office is okay with using a defendant’s poverty to circumvent the state’s bail law.

Now, to be clear, Bronx DA Darcel Clark is correct when she says that there could be some public safety risk from releasing someone from Rikers without any sort of re-entry plan. But the solution is not to capitalize on defendants’ poverty and use bail to (illegally) lock them up—not only because doing so violates New York’s bail statute, but because Rikers is itself a dangerous and violent place.

At the same time, it is important that any solution not be counterproductive. Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez, for example, is encouraging witnesses and victims to get orders of protection against those being bailed out. But as public defenders are quick to explain, such orders often fail to reflect the messy, intertwined nature of violence in the city, and they can push defendants into homelessness and unemployment, which might actually make things riskier.

There are two other conceptual problems with the prosecutors’ decision to stoke people’s fears of more offending. To start, all the people who the foundation will bail out were eligible for bail in the first place. Had each of them made bail at their arraignment and left the courtroom, one by one, over the course of weeks or months, no one would have said anything. It would have been the system working as it is designed to. So why is the release of a small number of them in a short window of time suddenly a cause for alarm? The most plausible explanation seems to be that each defendant making bail at arraignment was not actually the goal, that the purpose was to use unaffordable bail to ensure systematic confinement—even though New York State law requires judges to consider a defendant’s ability to pay bail and provides up to nine ways judges can release defendants to ensure poverty alone doesn’t trap them in Rikers.

And let’s be clear: The action taken by the foundation, while laudable, is relatively minor in total scope. Rikers currently releases approximately 50,000 people every year, so the few hundred that the foundation will help leave jail constitute less than 1 percent of the total number flowing out of Rikers every year. It seems unlikely that a 1 percent increase will lead to any noticeable increase in crime. (And contrary to what some law enforcement types have said, evidence indicates that people bailed out via bail funds are just as likely to show up as those bailed out by family or friends.)

Finally, any risk to victims or witnesses has to be balanced against the risks to those detained in Rosie’s and at the Horizon Juvenile Center, where the teens formerly incarcerated in Davoren are now housed. Rikers Island is a violent, dysfunctional place. The city’s own independent commission that looked into conditions on Rikers quoted family members of detainees calling the place “Torture Island.” Rikers operated under a “code of violence,” the commission reported, and life there was defined by “brutal treatment” and “inhumane conditions.” In fact, the commission noted that those conditions were particularly dangerous and antithetical to re-entry for women and juveniles—the very populations the bailout targets. And Horizon is currently facing a federal investigation into the claim that the children detained there were sexually abused by staff for years.

By talking about the harms to victims and witnesses but ignoring those faced by the people on Rikers and at Horizon—people who retain the presumption of innocence, though that should hardly matter when talking about treating people with basic human decency—the prosecutors are reinforcing the dangerous politics of punishment. Criminal justice decisions often operate under fear of the “Willie Horton Effect,” which means that any act of leniency is politically risky, since the person out on bail could commit a crime that gets sensationalized attention. Needlessly keeping someone locked up, meanwhile, remains relatively riskless for politicians, since the costs are borne by a population mostly out of sight and whose harms aren’t considered relevant in the first place.

Even if New York’s prosecutors ultimately do not impede the foundation’s efforts, their rhetoric is disappointing. Much of criminal justice reform is about making the general public think more carefully about the needless, preventable, and often counterproductive harms that the system creates, and the prosecutors’ reactive “what about public safety?!” proclamations directly undermine such efforts, and only serve to strengthen the public’s willingness to continue to cage women and teens.

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