Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Norfolk Judges By Default Support Disproportionate Prosecution of Blacks

Lobby of Norfolk Court House.
For many years Virginia's arcane marijuana laws have been used - by design, in my view to subjugate and disenfranchise blacks - to disproportionately criminalize black citizens.  This is an issue I have written about in the past and I have previously noted that City of Norfolk has been a prime offender in Virginia when it comes to disproportionately targeting blacks.  Indeed, the most recent statistics are most damning: 81 percent marijuana arrests were black in a city with a population that is 47 percent white and 42 percent black. The continuation of this injustice was recently re-enforced by the Republican controlled Virginia General Assembly which killed legislation that would have overhauled Virginia's horrible marijuana laws and decriminalized simple possession offences.  To address this unconscionable situation, Norfolk's Commonwealth Attorney, Greg Underwood, has indicated that he will not prosecute (would that he could convince the Norfolk Police Department from targeting blacks).  Unfortunately Underwood has hit a brick fall in the form of Norfolk's judges who have stated that they will continue to try marijuana summons even if the Commonwealth Attorney refuses to prosecute them.  Underwood's hopefully work around?  He has petitioned the Virginia Supreme Court - which has a terrible track record of being on the wrong side of history and supporting racial discrimination - asking that it affirm his prosecutorial discretion. A piece in the Virginian Pilot looks at the stand off.  The judges' action is unfortunate.  The continued targeting of blacks by the Norfolk Police Department is down right reprehensible. Here are excerpts:

The city’s chief prosecutor said he will ask the state Supreme Court to force local judges into dismissing misdemeanor marijuana cases, effectively de-criminalizing the drug in Norfolk.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Greg Underwood on Friday sent a letter to the chief judge of the city’s highest court, letting him and the seven other Circuit Court judges know that Underwood would appeal their collective decision to deny motions prosecutors have made over the past two months to abandon those cases.
Two months ago, Underwood announced he would undertake several efforts to achieve what he called criminal justice reform, including no longer prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana appeals.
But since then, at least four judges have denied prosecutors’ requests to dismiss marijuana charges. The tug-of-war adds to the confusion about whether it’s OK to have a small amount of weed in the city. Norfolk police have said they will continue to cite people for misdemeanor marijuana possession as they’ve always done. Circuit Court judges appear determined to make sure offenders are tried, even if the commonwealth’s attorney refuses to prosecute them.
Prosecuting people for having marijuana disproportionately hurts black people and does little to protect public safety, Underwood has said.
In 2016 and 2017, more than 1,560 people in Norfolk were charged with first- or second-offense marijuana possession, prosecutor Ramin Fatehi said during a hearing last month. Of them, 81 percent were black in a city that’s 47 percent white and 42 percent black.
This “breeds a reluctance on the part of African Americans, particular young African American men, to trust or cooperate with the justice system,” according to a Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office memo announcing the policy changes
“Such prosecution also encourages the perception that the justice system is not focusing its attention on the legitimately dangerous crimes that regrettably are concentrated in these same communities.”
The judge, Hall, admitted Fatehi made an “extremely compelling case” with his statistics on racial disparities, but said he should pitch it to lawmakers in Richmond.
“I believe this is an attempt to usurp the power of the state legislature,” Hall said. “This is a decision that must be made by the General Assembly, not by the commonwealth’s attorney’s office.”
But circumventing the commonwealth’s attorney’s role in the long term would keep marijuana possession cases alive in Norfolk, thwarting Underwood’s criminal justice reform.

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