Andrew Cuomo
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave his 2012 State of the State address Wednesday afternoon. He is seen here at a 2011 speaking engagement. Reuters

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced legislation Monday to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana in public view. The move on Cuomo's part is meant to reduce the number of people - often minorities - arrested for a joint in their pocket when they are stopped and frisked by police.

Cuomo said the measure is about creating fairness and consistency in the law.

Under the New York State Penal Law, those who are caught possessing 25 grams or less of marijuana open to public view can be charged with a Class B misdemeanor. However, anyone who privately possesses the same amount of marijuana gets a finable violation.

What Cuomo's legislation would do is make all possession of small amounts of marijuana, whether public or private, a finable offense. Bringing marijuana in a public place, however, would remain a misdemeanor.

This is an issue that disproportionately affects young people - they wind up with a permanent stain on their record for something that would otherwise be a violation, Cuomo said in a statement. The charge makes it more difficult for them to find a job. Together, we are making New York fairer and safer, and ensuring that every New Yorker has access to justice system that doesn't discriminate based on age or color.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly called Cuomo's proposed legislation a balanced approach.

Last September, Kelly ordered officers to issue violations instead of making misdemeanor arrests when they found people in possession of small amounts of marijuana.

(It) comports with the spirit of the NYPD operations order issued on the subject last year, Kelly said of Cuomo's legislation. Further, the department's ongoing quality of life enforcement is supported by preserving the penalties for smoking marijuana in public.

New York state in 1977 reduced the penalty for possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana to a violation. However, possession of the drug remained a misdemeanor if in plain sight. Cuomo's office stated that in the years since the passing of the Marijuana Reform Act the number of yearly arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana increased from approximately 2,000 in 1990 to more than 50,000 today. 94 percent of those arrests happen in New York City each year.

By The Numbers

These minor marijuana arrests affect disproportionately minority youth.

- Last year, more than 50 percent of those arrested in New York State were under 25 years old.

- 82 percent of those arrested were either Black or Hispanic.

- Of 53,124 arrested, less than 10 percent were ever convicted of a crime.

- For those arrested and the small number of those convicted, their records are stained, making it hard to find future employment.

Safety and fairness are the twin pillars of our criminal justice system. That is why I support Governor Cuomo's proposed changes to the law governing possession of marijuana, said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. This simple and fair change will help us redirect significant resources to the most violent criminals and serious crime problems, and, frankly, it is the right thing to do.