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New York Stops Testing Probationers for Marijuana Use

by Dale Chappell

The New York City Council voted in April 2019 to stop testing probationers for marijuana use. The move was a step toward reducing re-incarceration of probationers and parolees, and may be a foreshadowing of the legalization of recreational marijuana in the state.

There are currently 4.5 million people on probation or parole in the U.S., nearly double the number in jails and prisons. Every year almost 350,000 people are locked up because they violated the terms of their community supervision. In Georgia, 67 percent of new prison intakes in 2015 were due to supervision violations; in Rhode Island, it was 64 percent in 2016.

But parole and probation supervision wasn’t supposed to be this way, argues Vincent Schiraldi, a former New York City probation commissioner who is now co-director of Columbia University’s Justice Lab. As incarceration rates increased, supervision became stricter – it changed from an act of mercy to a different form of punishment, he noted.

In October 2018, Schiraldi told a New York Assembly Committee that there’s no public safety justification to test people on supervision for marijuana use. Research showed that drug testing increased the chance of jail time for violations, but did not actually reduce criminal activity. He told the Committee that when his office decided to stop testing for marijuana use by probationers, revocations were cut nearly in half.

“Probation and parole have become much larger than originally intended, with burdensome conditions that serve as trip wires to incarceration rather than as alternatives,” Schiraldi said. He was joined by four other former New York City probation commissioners in advocating for an end to marijuana testing.

“These reforms protect the civil liberties of New Yorkers and promote fair treatment. There is no reason to treat cannabis consumers as second class citizens,” added Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “We shouldn’t penalize those who privately use cannabis responsibly from gainful employment, nor should the courts seize upon this behavior as a justification to return someone to jail or prison.”

A new effort by criminal justice reformers who teamed up with Assemblyman Walter Mosley is pushing to end marijuana testing and restore the mercy aspect of supervision in New York statewide. In 2018, the Less is More Act (S.1343B) was introduced to do just that; it would cap jail sentences for violations at 30 days, and allow parolees to earn credits to reduce their parole terms. Several police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors have signed on; the legislation is currently in committee.

Similar efforts are underway in Pennsylvania, in the wake of rapper Meek Mill’s harsh jail term for a probation violation based on a video of him popping a wheelie on a motorcycle. His group, the REFORM Alliance, is pushing for probation reforms. [See: PLN, May 2019, p.56]. Pennsylvania introduced a bill similar to the Less is More Act (SB 14) in January 2019. That bill also has been referred to a committee, and remains pending.

“We all know that there’s no public safety value in violating people over low level marijuana offenses, especially today when the state has already legalized medical marijuana and is talking about legalizing recreational use,” said New York City Council chairman Donovan Richards, who introduced the bill ending marijuana testing for probationers. 

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Sources: reason.com, nydailynews.com, NORML