Geography of Incarceration

 

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Between 1 January 2013 and 31 December 2017, the New York Police Department (NYPD) made 102,992 arrests for the possession, sale, and/or use of marijuana. 1 While only 25.5% of New Yorkers are Black, 67.5% of marijuana arrests are of Blacks. Similarly, 18 out of 20 marijuana arrests are of male individuals, even though only 13 out of 20 marijuana users are male. 2 Males more than females and Blacks more than others are arrested for marijuana. While these two aspects of the “War on Drugs” are widely known, less discussed is the clustering of marijuana arrests in specific hotspots.

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Race

Percentage of New Yorkers who identify as this race 3

Percentage of marijuana arrests of individuals belonging to this race

White

44.0%

11.2%

Black

25.5%

67.5%

Asian/Pacific Islander

12.8%

4.2%

Other

17.7%

17.1%

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These arrests are disproportionately of Black males between the ages of 18-44 from low-income communities, even though this demographic represents less than 10% of the city’s population. Why should this matter? Arresting individuals for using a relatively harmless and non-addictive drug is expensive for the taxpayer. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the city spent $75 million on marijuana arrests and prosecution per year 4 – money that could have been put to more effective use on education, awareness, etc. This policy also unfairly targets the individuals to whom the consequences of arrest, incarceration, and bail are highest.
The common argument, and the grounds on which marijuana was initially made illegal, is that marijuana is a “gateway drug.” Marijuana supposedly introduces and later encourages individuals to experiment with more dangerous and addictive substances. Whether or not this is true, the arrest and punishment of individuals for marijuana may incur the equal risk of serving as a “gateway crime” to the legal system.

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Click here to view this pie chart in more detail.

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Below are three maps of neighborhood “hotspots” for marijuana arrests. The income of every block is indicated on a red to green color scale from low to high. Population of Latinos and Blacks per square mile is also indicated; unsurprisingly, these groups cluster in low-income neighborhoods. On this base map is the geo-referenced address of every arrest for marijuana possession or sale from 2013 to 2017. Of particular note is the tendency for marijuana arrests to occur in low-income neighborhoods. For instance, Manhattan’s 96th Street represents an income divide between the wealthy Upper East Side and the comparatively poorer Harlem. Drawing a “thin blue line” down 96th, we also identify an unspoken policing boundary. Marijuana arrests are significantly less likely to happen in the majority white neighborhood south of 96th than in the majority black neighborhood north, even though both neighborhoods are of comparable population density. According to the UCLA: “Despite roughly equal usage rates, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.” 5 Similarly, the wealthy and majority white neighborhood of Riverdale in the Bronx has few arrests in comparison to the poorer and majority black West Bronx, even though these two neighborhoods are less than mile apart.

 

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Research Methodology and Sources

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Note that on the above map, there are numerous low-income neighborhoods without any drug arrests. This is largely because these areas have little to no population, such as Central Park or La Guardia Airport.

This project was assembled entirely publicly-available data. I began by downloading anonymized microdata on the race, crime, gender, and age of every individual arrested by NYPD, as well as the address where this individual was arrested. Of the approximately 1.7 million arrests in this spreadsheet, I filtered out the marijuana crimes. The colored basemap indicating per capita income and race by city block is extracted from Tableau Public, the mapping software I use. The infographics presented above can be explored or downloaded at this link. Arrest data is from NYC Open Data at this link.

  1. Marijuana arrests represent 5.98% of all arrests made during this time period.
  2. From “Statista,” accessed 15 January 2019, link to statistic.
  3. From the United States Census Bureau, 2010 statistics on NYC demographics, link to report, link to database.
  4. From the Drug Policy Alliance, accessed 15 January 2019, link to press release, link to report.
  5. From the American Civil Liberties Union, accessed 18 January 2019, link to article.
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