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Discussion on Race and Gender Disparities in the D.C. Criminal Justice System

Will The Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Solve D.C.’s Race And Gender Disparity Problem?


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Councilmember Tommy Wells’ (D-Ward 6) marijuana decriminalization bill—which would reduce the penalty of the simple possession of marijuana (one ounce or less) to nothing more than a $100 fine—is currently undergoing a language rewrite following a hearing last month. So far, most of the D.C. Council and Mayor Vincent Gray are behind the bill, albeit with a few caveats, and a revised version of the bill will be sent to the full Council for a preliminary vote in December and a final vote in January.

In theory, the soul of this bill is to help to ease the racial disparities in the D.C. criminal justice system. Statistics show that a majority of D.C.’s marijuana-related arrests are of black males, despite the fact that the self-reported use of marijuana in D.C. is about equal between white and black residents. But the main question that remains with Wells’ bill—”The Simple Possession of Small Quantities Of Marijuana Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2013”—is will it actually help alleviate some of these statistics?

Last night, Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large) held a forum at the David A. Clarke School of Law at UDC on race and gender disparities in the D.C. criminal justice system, and much of the conversation focused on this lingering question. Joined by a panel of legal experts—Niaz Kasravi, Director of the NAACP’s Criminal Justice Program, John Brittain, a UDC law professor, Josephine Ross, a Howard University law professor, Seema Sadanandan, Program Director for the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital, and Deborah Golden, Director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Rights Project and Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs—last night’s forum essentially turned into a critical symposium on the marijuana decriminalization bill and ways that the District can turn around some of the shocking statistics as it relates to race and the marijuana arrest rate.

Speaking to a packed room of over 100 citizens, law students, and activists, Grosso gave a brief introduction, explaining what led him to become so involved in this issue. “We’re here today because many people have done the hard work necessary to expose injustices in the way people are arrested, tried, arraigned, convicted, and sentenced,” Grosso said. “But the reason I’m here today is because of three independent events that happened over the past 12 months, which gave profound sense of responsibility to insert myself, as a leader in the District of Columbia, into the debate on race in the criminal justice system,” he said. Grosso cited the murder of Trayvon Martin (and subsequent trial of George Zimmerman), the book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and comprehensive reports produced by the ACLU and Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs on racial disparity in arrests in D.C. as the three central reasons that led him to get so heavily involved on this issue.

Moderated by the Voice of Russia’s Kim Brown, each of the panelists laid out a variety of reasons why the U.S.’s failed War on Drugs has led to some disturbing trends in marijuana arrests and racial profiling, and how they’ve impact many black communities, specifically in D.C. Sadanandan of the ACLU said that, while working with young people in D.C., they would constantly tell her how they were “being stopped frequently by police under the pretext of marijuana,” and if cops thought they smelled like marijuana, they’d be searched. “The District, as compared to other jurisdictions in the United States,” Sadanandan said, “was one of the highest rates of marijuana enforcement anywhere, and we spent an enormous amount of money on marijuana arrests.” According to data compiled by the ACLU, 91 percent of all marijuana arrests in D.C. were of black people, and by and large, were of black men, despite the fact that the District is about 50 percent black and 50 percent white.

John Brittain, a UDC law professor mentioned that there is equal self-reported usage rate of marijuana in the District between white and black residents. He also talked about how the War on Drugs is a failed policy and that the country needs to not only be focusing on the legalization of marijuana, but to work on “[developing] uniform policies of cannabis and hemp to avoid corporate control,” he said. “Legal market of marijuana must be careful in not using taxes and other regulations to make marijuana so expensive that the criminal market continues,” Brittain also said.

Several other of the discussions panelists, including Kasravi and Golden, talked about how the current simple possession laws devastate the lives of those who are charged, making it increasingly difficult for them to reenter society because they have trouble finding work and housing with a record.

Toward the end of the discussion, the panelists opened up the forum to those in attendance, asking them what they think needs to be done to help solve the D.C. criminal justice system’s race and gender problem. One citizen gained many cheers and claps for calling out Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier. “You need to get rid of Cathy Lanier,” he said. “She puts road blocks in Trinidad, but she wouldn’t dare put those same road blocks in Georgetown.”

Perhaps the most cheers and claps of the evening came from another citizen who, while admitting that the marijuana decriminalization bill is a step in the right direction, the problem lives within the training of police officers and the lack of any sort of public oversight. “There needs to be a public oversight committee,” he said, “so that the police will actually have to listen and answer to the wishes of the public.”

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Matt Cohen



on Nov 15, 2013 12:18 PM