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Ken Thompson: Brooklyn District Attorney Who Refused to Prosecute Pot Arrests Dies

ken thompson

Earlier this month, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson announced he would take a medical leave after being diagnosed with cancer. Less than a week later, on Oct. 9, Thompson passed away. He was 50 years old, and had served as district attorney since 2014.

Despite his short time in office (his predecessor Charles J. Hynes served for 23 years), Thompson leaves an enduring legacy. He was Brooklyn’s first black district attorney, and his campaign focused on social justice issues like stop and frisk.

A former federal prosecutor, the New York-born Thompson effectively decriminalized cannabis in Brooklyn by instituting a policy of not prosecuting low-level marijuana offenses. Under his watch, anyone without an extensive criminal record busted for cannabis would have his or her case dismissed. The policy applied to amounts less than 25 grams.

It also mandated that minors caught with cannabis would be placed in a diversion program to be “redirected onto a healthier path,” according to a memo obtained by the New York Times.

“The processing of these cases exacts a cost on the criminal justice system and takes a toll on the individual… the burdens that [the cases] pose on the system and the individual are difficult to justify.” Thompson said in a statement announcing the move.

Unsurprisingly, the NYPD was not happy with the new policy.

“Mr. Thompson’s death is also a big blow to the broader cause of progressive prosecutorial reform nationwide, and to the recognition by law enforcement leaders of pervasive racial disparities across the criminal justice system,” wrote the New York Times editorial board after his unexpected death.

Not only did Ken Thompson change the way the office handled marijuana offenses, he also succeeded in reversing the convictions of 21 blacks and Latinos who had been wrongfully convicted. His office erased hundreds of thousands of outstanding warrants for minor offenses, which overwhelming affect people of color.

“Our courtrooms and our communities have no doubt been dealt a blow with Ken’s passing,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “I’m confident the indelible mark left by his public service will forever be a part of the fabric of our justice system.”

Thompson’s chief assistant, Eric Gonzalez, will take over as interim district attorney.



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