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New York City’s Homeless Youth Face Harsher Punishment for Cannabis Crimes than Housed Peers

Since the NYPD took over security duties in NYC’s homeless shelters, kids as young as seven have been subject to arrest and detention.

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Lead photo via Flickr user David Shankbone

It’s no secret that the New York City Police Department has a problem with marijuana arrests. Even with decriminalization as the law of the land and Mayor de Blasio decrying possession arrests as a relic of the past, police stats say otherwise, with thousands of mostly black and brown residents still being charged for minor marijuana offenses every year. For NYC’s homeless and sheltered youth, the story is no better, and a recently enacted series of cannabis-related law enforcement protocols is creating an even more unstable situation for one of the city’s most vulnerable populations.

According to an investigation from the New York Post, ever since the NYPD took over security duties at the city’s homeless shelters earlier this year, children ages 7-15 who are found possessing marijuana have been handcuffed, brought to their local police precinct, processed, and made to wait in a holding cell until a parent or guardian can come pick them up.

On the other side of the coin, students at New York City Public Schools who are caught with weed are held on campus, given a juvenile report summons, and are allowed to immediately return to class. Further, at 71 of the Big Apple’s more progressive high schools, students are simply given a warning, with no state involvement whatsoever.

The city’s homeless are not given that same benefit of the doubt, with down-and-out youth treated like hardened criminals before they’ve even hit puberty.

“Children who commit the same infraction are treated differently,” said Gregory Floyd, president of Teamsters Local 237  the union that represents both school safety agents and shelter guards  to the Post. “The mayor has two different policies for handling children.”

“You are stigmatized for being homeless and in a shelter,” said Andre Green, an ex-NYPD cop and deputy director of Local 237’s law-enforcement division.

Until recently, kids found with weed at NYC shelters were held in place until their parent or guardian was given a court summons, with no handcuffs or jail cell involved. That all changed when the NYPD was given the job as shelter security at the beginning of this year.

An email sent September 18th from a Department of Homeless Services official, obtained by the Post, marked the official department policy change.

“As of today, the precinct wants DHS police to escort the juvenile to the precinct, do a juvenile report, and stand by until the parent arrives,” the email said.

In addition to shaming vulnerable children and introducing them to the criminal justice system at an early age, Green argues that by forcing officers tasked with overseeing shelter security to transport kids accused of possession to the precinct, officials are softening shelter safety measures altogether.

Follow Zach Harris on Twitter