Thursday, December 21, 2017
Interesting new data on enduring racial disparities in marijuana arrests after decriminalization in St. Louis
This new local article, headlined "St. Louis Police Continue to Cite Blacks for Marijuana Possession at a High Rate," reports on some interesting data on arrest rates in St. Louis both before and after the cite decriminalized marijuana possession. Here are the details:
St. Louis police continue to make arrests for pot possession — and most of those arrested are black. In 2013, the final year before St. Louis attempted to decriminalize marijuana, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department made 1,056 arrests solely for pot possession — with black suspects accounting for 87 percent of those arrested.
But in the four years since the city made big changes to the way it handles marijuana possession cases, police records show that black suspects have continued to comprise roughly the same percentage of violations: a total of about 85 percent from 2014 to October of 2017.
That statistic, first obtained by the Riverfront Times through a Sunshine law request, was startling to civil rights attorneys. Sara Baker, the legislative and policy director for the ACLU of Missouri, remarks that the new data stands as “a reconfirmation of an old problem.”
Proponents of reforming the city’s drug laws had cheered the policy change that was implemented in 2014, following the passage of a bill that enjoyed broad approval by the city's Board of Aldermen. Prior to the bill’s passage, officers sent all drug cases, even for small quantities of weed, to the Circuit Attorney’s Office for state-level misdemeanor and felony charges, which can carry significant fines and jail time.
Then came the decriminalization proposal sponsored by Alderman Shane Cohn. Starting in 2014, officers were instructed to treat those suspected of possessing less than 35 grams of marijuana similar to someone committing a traffic offense, with fines between $100 and $500. But the racial dynamics of who was being cited, records now show, have stayed stubbornly the same. Officers may have changed the paperwork form on which they wrote the charges, but not the racial makeup of the people they cited.
“What’s incredibly revealing about the data,” says the ACLU’s Baker, “is that time and time again, when we see reforms either at the state or local level, and particularly reforms that still allow for fees or for low level criminalization, we might see a dip in is the amount of people overall that are arrested and charged. But that disparity rate remains shockingly persistent.”
Operating under the new policy in 2014 for the first time, pot possession arrests in St. Louis dipped by 144 from the previous year. But that modest decrease still showed virtually the same racial breakdown seen in prior years. In 2014, officers recorded 294 arrests for violations of the city’s updated municipal code; 85 percent of those people arrested were black. African Americans also accounted for 87 percent of the 618 arrests made on state charges, which are now reserved for suspects with more than 35 grams or those with at least two prior possession arrests in the city. The pattern continued in 2015: 88 percent of those busted for ordinance violations were black, as were 87 percent of 649 people facing state charges.
Across all five years’ worth data, there's no significant departure from the pattern. The only year where the percent of black arrests dipped below 85 percent was 2016, which showed ordinance violations given to black suspects in 77 percent of cases. By 2017, with data from January 1 to October, the percentage of black suspects ticked back up to 85 percent for both ordinance violations and criminal arrests. As of October 31, police had arrested 685 people on pot possession charges, about one-third for ordinance violations.
The persistence of the racial gap in arrests continues to worry Baker and the ACLU of Missouri. However, Rick Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis whose work focuses on crime statistics, says it's not necessarily a sign of racial bias among cops. Instead, he suggests, it may reflect the way blacks are more likely to live in neighborhoods plagued by violent crime. "[Officers] stop blacks on the street, typically young black men, out of a concern of violent crime," he explains. "They find no evidence that that individual was involved in violence crime, but they do find marijuana on the individual. And they arrest him."
"That seems to be the pattern. That's not the only reason. It's possible there’s racial bias involved in some of these arrests.” Racial bias could be just one element in the stew, Rosenfeld notes. Officers in neighborhoods suffering violent crime tend to be proactive and on the lookout to stop violence before it happens. They make judgment calls based on experience and (hopefully) reasonable suspicion. Sometimes those judgment calls need a convenient “pretexual arrest,” like a traffic stop or marijuana possession.