People arrested for marijuana offenses in New Orleans are overwhelmingly black, and the racial disparity in enforcement is even more pronounced in felony cases, according to a new study conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice.
Over a five-year period, more than three-quarters of the people arrested or given a summons for marijuana possession in the city were black, as were almost all of those who were arrested on a felony charge for possession, according to the report, which is being released Monday.
The report’s authors concede that numerous factors may contribute to the lopsided data, “not all of which indicate discriminatory policing.”
But the authors nonetheless urge policy makers to act, given the damage done to the black community in New Orleans by high incarceration rates for this and many other categories of crime.
“Although it is critical to understand the causes of this disparity, it is also clear that the aggregate racial impact, regardless of its causes, seriously harms the city of New Orleans as a whole — and black individuals, families and communities in particular,” the authors write.
The report comes amid a searing national debate over the way police officers treat African-Americans and a burgeoning movement to reduce penalties for marijuana use or even to legalize the drug entirely, as a few states have done.
In its report, the Vera Institute praises city leaders in New Orleans for adopting a less punitive approach to marijuana over the past few years, but it also calls for further action.
“The policies the city has implemented do a great deal to diminish some consequences of marijuana arrests that fall disproportionately on black New Orleanians, but these are differences in magnitude rather than kind,” the report says. “The underlying disparity in marijuana arrests remains intact.”
While black residents make up about 60 percent of the city’s population, they accounted for 79 percent of the arrests and summonses for marijuana possession between 2010 and 2015, according to the report, which is based on New Orleans Police Department arrest data. In the case of felony arrests for possession, 94 percent of those arrested were black.
About 40 people are taken into custody for marijuana possession each month in New Orleans, and they spend an average of five to 14 days in jail before their trial, depending on the specific offense, according to the report. Another 92 people receive summonses.
The report’s statistics are based on cases where the marijuana charge is the most severe charge facing the suspect. The authors excluded situations where someone is arrested for another crime and happens to have marijuana on them.
The Vera Institute did not delve into what causes the disparity, but a report released by the Police Department in April suggests black residents are more likely to be stopped and searched than members of other races. About 68 percent of the nearly 61,145 stops conducted by the department involved a black person. About 77 percent of all the people searched as a result of those stops were black.
The report focuses on the ways the effects of these disparities can be minimized through more lenient policies toward marijuana possession.
It notes the city already has taken some steps, including the recent passage of an ordinance, sponsored by Councilwoman Susan Guidry, that allows officers to charge marijuana possession as a municipal offense — which comes with a summons and a small fine — rather than a crime, as well as an earlier change in 2008 that allowed first-offense marijuana possession to be dealt with through a summons rather than an arrest.
“The new ordinance should result in fewer black New Orleanians facing unemployment, financial insecurity and threats to their health and safety because of pretrial detention,” the report says.
While black residents were more likely to be charged, the report found that roughly the same percentages of black and white suspects were given summonses rather than arrested.
The Vera Institute for Justice is a nonprofit organization that works “to advance practices that achieve equality, fairness and effectiveness in the administration of justice.”