Reefer Madness: Broken Windows Policing and Misdemeanor Marijuana Arrests in New York City, 1989-2000

Bernard E. Harcourt, Columbia Law School
Jens Ludwig


The pattern of misdemeanor marijuana arrests in New York City since the introduction of "broken windows" policing in 1994 is remarkable. By the year 2000, arrests on misdemeanor charges of smoking marijuana in public view (MPV) had reached 51,267 for the city, up 2,670 percent from 1,851 arrests in 1994. In 2000, misdemeanor MPV arrests accounted for 15 percent of all felony and misdemeanor arrests in New York City and 92 percent of total marijuana-related arrests in the State of New York. In addition, the pattern of arrests disproportionately targeted African-Americans and Hispanics.

In this paper, we analyze the MPV arrest data. Building on our previous research on broken windows policing and, using a number of different statistical approaches on the MPV arrest data, we find no good evidence that the MPV arrests are associated with reductions in serious violent or property crimes in the city. As a result New York City's marijuana policing strategy seems likely to simply divert scarce police resources away from more effective approaches that research suggests is capable of reducing real crime.

One reform that we discuss concerns the legal standard of review in cases involving such pronounced racial or ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system: Courts reviewing claims of racial or ethnic discrimination in policing, where the prima facie evidence of discrimination cuts across several layers of outcomes (arrest, detention, conviction, and additional incarceration) should relax the requirement that the complainant prove actual discriminatory intent on the part of a particular actor, and instead allow for an inference of intent where the government has failed to justify or explain a number of those disparities. This change would effectively shift the burden of explaining gross disparities on the party with the most complete information.