Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn has made a couple of smart, if moderately edgy, decisions in recent weeks — one on declining to prosecute a Common Council member who brought a gun into a school and, more recently, on announcing that he will no longer prosecute possession of small amounts of marijuana as a misdemeanor.
Both were good decisions that were made better, still, when Flynn made a point of explaining them and, we suspect, winning public support. Given a natural — and healthy — public uneasiness about the use of prosecutorial discretion, Flynn has handled both of these episodes well.
Both decisions were, in different ways, chancy. As it stands, possession of small amounts of marijuana remains a misdemeanor. The State Legislature, unable to agree on legislation legalizing marijuana, instead wisely voted to decriminalize it.
But Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has not signed the bill, though he is expected to. That means in Erie County, and elsewhere around the state, someone found with a small amount of marijuana risks arrest, prosecution and punishment for something that, only days later, might draw only the equivalent of a speeding ticket.
To have continued such prosecutions, while technically defensible, would have been ethically bankrupt, not to mention a poor use of taxpayer dollars. Police might, themselves, have exercised their own discretion, but Erie County is dotted with law enforcement agencies. By making his policy plain, Flynn has helped all those police departments make better use of their time and resources.
It is — appropriately — a new day in New York regarding the possession and use of marijuana. Whether it should be fully legalized is a legitimate and difficult question and should be based, in part, on the experiences of other states and countries, including Canada, and the growing base of knowledge about the long-term effects of marijuana use, especially by young people.
But, given the broad use and growing acceptance of marijuana here and around the country, it made no sense to threaten casual users with criminal records that could haunt them all their lives. That would be true in any case, but all the more urgent given uneven enforcement that saw young African American males arrested at much higher rates than their white peers. Beyond a fetishistic commitment to the law, there was no reason for Flynn to continue prosecuting these cases as misdemeanors.
The matter of Ulysees O. Wingo was different. The decision not to prosecute the Masten member of the Buffalo Common Council has none of the broader implications implicit in the marijuana question and represented one public official’s decision of whether to prosecute another for what was an undeniable violation of the law. As such, the political implications for Flynn were arguably higher in that case.
Wingo, who headed the Common Council’s Education Committee, had brought a gun into Riverside High School but, once he realized his error, walked back to the school office and surrendered the gun to the school principal. It wasn’t the best solution — he should have taken it home and been late for his event — but it represented an acknowledgment of the problem and ensured the gun was safely stored.
Nevertheless, as Flynn later said, Wingo committed a crime. The question was whether to charge him and, after some consideration, the DA opted against it. It was a plausible decision — though not the only plausible one — and to his credit, Flynn forthrightly announced it.
It is reassuring to have a district attorney who thinks these matters through and communicates them to the public he represents. There is an obvious risk when law enforcement officers exercise prosecutorial discretion, but sometimes it’s the better course. It surely was in the marijuana case and it was plausibly so in the Wingo matter. Good decisions, both.