Bloomberg's Burden: If Mogul Mayor Wants to Help Young Men of Color, He Should Really Re-Examine Drug Policy
My last NYC apartment was on E.129th Street & Madison Avenue in Harlem. There is a middle school one block away that I passed every day. The building took up almost one city block and had no windows. Inside, the classroom and hallways are lighted with florescent bulbs giving the concrete walls the look of a prison. Unfortunately, not every Harlem child is lucky enough to attend the new and ultra modern Harlem Children’s Academy on 125th Street founded by Geoff Canada. What do you think it does to a 6th grader to attend school in a building with no windows? To go all day without sunlight? To add insult to injury the school is named for Arthur Schomburg the great black bibliophile, I believe he’d turn over in his grave if he saw it. In my view, the school is emblematic of the relationship between Mayor Bloomberg and poor minority communities – a solid closed structure that generates outcomes inapposite to its stated mission.
Two weeks ago New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg received praise from politicians, philanthropists and media for his pledge to give $30 million of his own money towards an initiative to improve life outcomes for “at-risk” black and Latino males from the city’s poorest communities. The $127 million initiative will address four critical areas: education, employment, health and justice. I applaud Mayor Bloomberg for recognizing the critical situation facing young black males in NYC – yet I’m dismayed that much of the initiative’s focus is on ‘fixing’ young men instead of ‘fixing’ the institutional practices that generate their poor outcomes. In this respect the initiative is another example of the paternalism that has characterized so much of white America’s relationship to poor black and brown communities and colored Mayor Bloomberg’s policies.
Here’s an assessment of the Mayor’s plan by Pedro Noguera, a NYU professor who advised the mayoral team that developed it:
What’s your general impression of the mayor’s plan?
It’s very substantive and it’s comprehensive, so I want to give the mayor credit for taking such an ambitious approach in putting so many resources behind the effort. I think that the real test — the problem with the issue — is that it’s very complex and multi-faceted and multi-dimensional.
They’re not just focusing on education. They’re focusing on employment. They’re focusing on some of the social issues related to mentoring. So I think all of that bodes well for the plan.
One of the big challenges will be sticking with it over time, to make sure that there’s follow-through, to make sure if something’s not working they modify it or they scrap it, rather than sticking with something that doesn’t have an impact.
What wasn’t in the plan that should have been?
I was disappointed that there’s nothing about the stop-and-frisk policy, or about the large number of arrests for marijuana in the city that particularly target black and Hispanic males, when the evidence shows that a large number of the marijuana smokers in the city are white. I thought the fact that they didn’t touch those issues was, to me, an omission that I would have liked to have seen included. One of the mayor’s goals here is to prevent people from going back into prison.
What the data is showing, the overwhelming majority of those who are stopped and frisked — and I think in many cases illegally searched — are black and Latino males. And in some cases that results in arrests, but in many cases it just results in harassment and an initial encounter with the police that is unpleasant to say the least.
But there’s also large numbers of kids who are being arrested in schools or in subways for very minor offenses, and that is their introduction to the criminal justice system. So I would have liked to have see something done about that, and I think the mayor does have power to do something about that.
Every day in New York City – at a time when budget cuts are forcing layoffs of city workers and reduction in services – the NYPD arrests 140 people for possessing marijuana. That’s right 140 people a day, every day for an offense decriminalized in 1977. In Bloomberg’s New York marijuana possession is the most common basis for a misdemeanor arrest, the majority of these arrests occur when police stop-and-frisk young men in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Police officials say the stop-and-frisks are a way to find guns but what they find most often is a small amount of marijuana. 86% of those arrested for low-level marijuana possession in NYC are black and Latino, despite studies showing whites smoke marijuana at higher rates. The following video by brother Jazz Hayden in Harlem records a typical marijuana possession arrest:
Below is a great map illustrating the racial and ethnic composition of precincts/neighborhoods with the highest rates of arrests for low level marijuana offenses:
Yet, Bloomberg and his aides continue to defend the policy, minimizing the impact on poor black and Latino youth. As reported in the NYT:
Faced with criticism from members of the City Council and the State Legislature, aides to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg have emphasized that few of those arrested on pot charges actually end up with criminal convictions because most cases are dismissed and sealed after one year. In effect, they say, the arrest process itself — which can stretch for 24 hours or more, under squalid conditions in holding pens — is the extent of the punishment.
Against the somewhat dubious claims of reduction in serious crime due to massive arrests for marijuana possession is the real evidence of harm to the hundreds of thousands of young black and Latino New Yorkers who’ve been arrested. The Bloomberg administration asserts the consequences for the people locked up have been minimal. Documented accounts are accumulating that such arrests have led to loss of employment, housing and for some noncitizens deportation and permanent separation from family and friends. Even without these common collateral consequences, there is harm associated with the entire process of arrest and pre-arraignment detention.
The experience of being handcuffed, placed in a police van (often to ride around for hours while police troll for more arrestees) arriving at a police station for processing – including mug shots, fingerprints and sometimes a strip search, culminating with up to 48 hours detention in a cramped, dirty and noisy cell is extremely unpleasant and traumatic. To minimize the significance of the experience, particularly on a young person with no prior interaction with the criminal justice system is callous in the extreme, particularly by a mayor who claims to care so much about New York City children.
As if that were not enough last week the NYTimes reported that hundreds of New Yorkers have lost temporary and sometimes permanent custody of their children solely because of their use of marijuana. According to the report:
Hundreds of New Yorkers who have been caught with small amounts of marijuana, or who have simply admitted to using it, have become ensnared in civil child neglect cases in recent years, though they did not face even the least of criminal charges, according to city records and defense lawyers. A small number of parents in these cases have even lost custody of their children.
For these parents, the child welfare system has become an alternate system of justice, with legal standards on marijuana that appear to be tougher than those of criminal courts or, to some extent, of society at large. In interviews, lawyers from the three legal services groups that the city hires to defend parents said they saw hundreds of marijuana cases each year, most involving recreational users.
Contrary to the claims of Mayor Bloomberg and NYPD officials, there is no conclusive evidence linking marijuana arrests to drops in the City’s crime rate. Two scholars at the University of Chicago, studied New York City’s marijuana possession arrests. Analyzing police department data, they found “no good evidence that the [marijuana] arrests are associated with reductions in serious violent or property crimes in the city. If anything, it has had the reverse effect. As a result, New York City’s marijuana policing strategy seems likely to simply divert scarce police resources away from more effective approaches” that research suggests are capable of reducing real crime.
The burden of recognizing that many of the policies and practices he continues to endorse contribute to the barriers and challenges faced by poor minority youth is on Mayor Bloomberg. He cannot relieve himself of this burden or remedy the harms his policies have caused with a $30 million check.