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Ken Thompson, Brooklyn DA Who ‘Decriminalized’ Cannabis, Passes Away

Bill Weinberg

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Kenneth Thompson, the first African American elected to serve as Brooklyn’s district attorney in the 166-year history of the office, died on Sunday at the age of 50. Thompson, a leading voice for criminal justice reform in New York City, was most famous for his 2014 decision to stop prosecuting low-level cannabis cases in Brooklyn.

“This new policy is a reasonable response to the thousands of low-level marijuana arrests that weigh down the criminal justice system, require significant resources that could be redirected to more serious crimes and take an unnecessary toll on offenders,” Thompson said in his press release announcing the move. Gothamist reported at the time that the decision “effectively decriminalized marijuana possession in the borough.”

Under the policy, those caught with under 25 grams now have their cases dismissed prior to arraignment. Thompson’s press release noted that of Brooklyn’s more than 8,500 cases the previous year in which the top charge was misdemeanor marijuana possession, more than two-thirds were dismissed because the defendant accepted an Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal, or ACD. This basically means the charge is dropped if the defendant keeps a clean nose for a specified period. Thompson argued the whole thing was a waste of everyone’s time.

“The processing of these cases exacts a cost on the criminal justice system and takes a toll on the individual,” Thompson said. “Given that these cases are ultimately—and predictably—dismissed, the burdens that they pose on the system and the individual are difficult to justify. We are pouring money into an endeavor that produces no public safety benefit.” In arguing for the policy, Thompson noted the racial disparity in New York City cannabis arrests, which had been soaring for years.

According to his obituary in Kings County Politics, Thompson went to New York City public schools before attending John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he graduated magna cum laude. His mother, Clara Thompson, was one of the first female police officers to patrol New York’s streets in 1973. Before being elected to serve as DA in 2013, Ken Thompson served as an assistant U.S. attorney for Brooklyn. In this position, he worked with then-U.S. Attorney (today Attorney General) Loretta Lynch as a member of the federal prosecution team in the 1997 trial of former police officer Justin Volpe, who was accused of sodomizing Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in a bathroom at Brooklyn’s 70th Precinct in Brooklyn. The landmark police brutality trial, where Thompson delivered the opening prosecution arguments, resulted in Volpe changing his plea from “not guilty” to “guilty.”

Thompson also worked to clear the names of many arrested for low-level drug offenses through his Conviction Review Unit, set up to re-examine questionable convictions. Lots of cannabis cases were among those thrown out.

New York City Public Advocate Letitia James is apparently under consideration to be appointed interim Brooklyn DA, according to Kings County Politics. In her statement upon her colleague’s death, James said: “Ken Thompson was committed to bringing equity to Brooklyn, and to making our borough safer and fairer for all. He stayed true to this commitment until his last moments, and we must all continue his legacy by working for a more just New York.” 

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