A Criminal Offense

Republicans in the state Senate rejected Governor Cuomo’s laudable proposal to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. They will now go back to their suburban and rural districts and brag about how tough they are. Their toughness will now consign hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young people to the not-very-tender mercies of the criminal justice system. Nice work, senators.

Mr. Cuomo’s plan was so rooted in common sense and reality that perhaps it is no surprise that the senators found it objectionable. Under the governor’s bill, possession of 25 grams or fewer would no longer be a misdemeanor. That would have had an immediate impact on the lives of hundreds of young black and Latino men in the city. They are the most likely targets of the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy. When they are stopped, they are ordered to empty their pockets. If they pull out a small bag of pot, they are subject to arrest. And that means, of course, that they now have an arrest record—something they are obliged to reveal on employment applications.

It’s insane. Times are tough enough for minority youth—a recent study showed that African-Americans are not benefitting from jobs growth in the city. Young people of color with a rap sheet have an even tougher time finding a job. What a shame that the “rap sheet” might consist of a misdemeanor possession charge, the result of being stopped and frisked.

Mr. Cuomo recognized the profound injustice of the state’s marijuana law and the ways in which its application in the city is stigmatizing so many young people. The governor, it must be said, was not alone. His proposal had the support of Mayor Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and the city’s five district attorneys. None of them could ever be described as being soft on crime.

Yet the state senators from the ’burbs and hamlets of New York chose to put cheap political pandering ahead of common sense and simple justice. In this election year, they will go back to the sticks and talk about how they defied those scary liberals from the city who wished to unleash criminals upon a frightened populace.

Would it be unfair—unjust, even—to point out that so many of those tough-on-crime senators live in areas that are home to the state’s prison-industrial complex? True, a first-time misdemeanor offender is not about to be sent up the river. But in those upstate regions that rely on prisons for employment and economic activity, the very thought of loosening drug laws is heresy. Entire towns and counties upstate depend on the vigorous enforcement of laws for their daily bread.

The senators who brag about being tough on crime may have another, not-so-secret, agenda. If they support common-sense drug laws, they might have to replace their prisons with more-creative economic-development plans for their towns and counties.

That would require effort. Far better to simply enforce stupid laws and maintain the flow of prisoners.