Brooklyn Judge Vows Not to Send People Back to Prison for Smoking Marijuana

Noting that marijuana has become increasingly accepted by society, a federal judge in Brooklyn made an unusual promise on Thursday: He pledged he would no longer reimprison people simply for smoking pot.

In a written opinion that was part legal document, part mea culpa, the judge, Jack B. Weinstein, 96, acknowledged that for too long, he had been sending people sentenced to supervised release back into custody for smoking pot even though the drug has been legalized by many states and some cities, like New York, have recently decided not to arrest those who use it. Under supervised release, inmates are freed after finishing their prison time, but are monitored by probation officers.

“Like many federal trial judges, I have been terminating supervision for ‘violations’ by individuals with long-term marijuana habits who are otherwise rehabilitated,” Judge Weinstein wrote. “No useful purpose is served through the continuation of supervised release for many defendants whose only illegal conduct is following the now largely socially acceptable habit of marijuana use.”

Supervised release, administered in courts across the country by the federal probation agency, was created in 1984 to help rehabilitate people who have finished prison terms. But certain violations can lead to reimprisonment: among them, using drugs, getting caught with weapons or associating with other known criminals.

Because marijuana is still illegal under federal law, those on supervised release who use the drug — or even refuse to be tested for it — are required to be sent back into custody. But in his order, Judge Weinstein said that locking people up again just for smoking pot — especially at a moment when laws and attitudes are changing — was not only a waste of time and money, but also had an implicit racial bias.

“In this court, the majority of supervisees who face a violation charge for marijuana use are African- Americans,” the judge explained. “Since an African-American is eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use, his or her chance of a supervised release violation for marijuana is much greater than a white person’s.”

Though Judge Weinstein said his new approach to supervised release would be carried out in all his future cases, his opinion was issued specifically in regard to Tyran Trotter, a 22-year-old Queens man who pleaded guilty in 2016 to distributing heroin. Mr. Trotter was sentenced in the case to two years in prison and to three years of supervised release.

Last year, after Mr. Trotter had served his time in prison, probation officials said he had violated the terms of his release by using marijuana and failing to comply with their orders to get treatment. The officials recommended that he be sent back to prison for another four months and be placed on two more years of supervised release.

But instead, Judge Weinstein refused to send Mr. Trotter back to prison and ended his stint of supervised release, essentially forgiving him of any violations. Mr. Trotter, the judge explained, had “stayed out of trouble” after being freed and was “trying to lead a productive life.” But he had a “chronic problem” that was getting in his way: an addiction to marijuana.

“Many people from all walks of life now use marijuana without fear of adverse legal consequences,” Judge Weinstein wrote. But the criminal-justice system, he went on, “can trap some defendants, particularly substances abusers, in a cycle where they oscillate between supervised release and prison.”

Both the probation agency and the United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn, which prosecuted Mr. Trotter, declined to comment on the ruling. But most federal judges seem to believe that designating drug use as a violation of supervised release “is not desirable,” Judge Weinstein wrote. He cited a survey from 2014 in which 85 percent of federal judges said that they should not be required to send people on supervised release back to prison for possessing an illegal drug. According to the study, 74 percent of the judges said the same about people who failed three drug tests in a year.

Federal courts have split over the issue. In 2010, a federal judge in Michigan found that using marijuana — even for legal medical reasons — was enough to reimprison people on supervised release. (A federal judge in Virginia found the same in 2016.) But in 2016 and then last year, two judges in Washington, D.C., decided to end terms of supervised release rather than send the defendants back to prison for using marijuana.

Judge Weinstein, who has sat in Federal District Court in Brooklyn for more than 50 years, has long been known for his progressive leanings and iconoclastic temperament. Last summer, he publicly called for more female lawyers to have speaking roles in court. A few months later, he said he wanted to personally investigate the problem of perjury by the police.

Just a few weeks ago, he took on the United States Supreme Court, saying that its justices had gone too far in curbing the public’s power to hold the police accountable for misconduct and abuse.

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