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"The police catch so many more of one kind of fish because they are mostly searching in certain waters," Levine says.
Marijuana pinches are generally easy and safe, and they provide overtime while giving the appearance of productivity, he says. And who's easier to arrest: young and poor black and Latino men, who Levine says "usually lack the political and social connections that might make the arrests troublesome or embarrassing for the police," or white college kids whose parents can probably afford lawyers who make a living picking apart weak cases?
Whether as a byproduct or by design, these mass pot arrests have enabled the NYPD to add thousands of new names, photographs, and fingerprints to their criminal-record databases. Levine's study found that 60 percent of those arrested on misdemeanor pot charges since 1997 didn't have prior criminal records.
"Marijuana arrests are the best and easiest way currently available to acquire data on young people, especially black and Latino youth, who have not previously been entered into the criminal-justice databases," Levine testified last year at a legislative hearing on a proposal to expand the state's DNA database to include all those arrested for misdemeanors.
Levine argues that this costly enforcement strategy ultimately causes only more problems by "socializing" young blacks and Latinos to the jail culture and making a life of crime more likely, because many places where these young men might otherwise find employment don't hire those with criminal records.