CA: Overturning Old Marijuana Convictions Just Got Easier

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In a city filled to the brim with programmers, it is beyond frustrating that our government computer systems are so inept. Using technology to improve these systems is a no-brainer, and one organization is leading the charge. For nearly two decades Code for America has improved relationships between the government and its constituents, ranging from little things like an “Adopt a Hydrant” website so that volunteers in Boston can sign up to shovel out fire hydrants after storms, to creating GetCalFresh, a streamlined version of the 50-page, hour-long system California’s government created.

Now, Code for America is at again, with a new tool that will radically make a difference in people’s lives. On Tuesday, they announced a new technology that will automatically clear eligible marijuana convictions. The announcement comes four months after San Franciso District Attorney George Gascón stated that he would apply California’s Proposition 64, which legalized cannabis, retroactively to misdemeanor and felony convictions dating back to 1975. All told, this could apply to nearly 5,000 felony marijuana convictions and 3,000 misdemeanors.

It’s a gargantuan task. With all hands on deck, the DA’s office has still only finalized 428 conviction dismissals since January. It’s been a resource-intensive process, and barely a month in,  Gascón and Code for America began discussing ways to automate the process. The successful pilot will seamlessly clear criminal records under Prop. 64 for all individuals, with no action required on the part of the individual and with minimal staff time and resources from the SFDA’s office.

“When the government uses 20th-century tools to tackle 21st-century problems, it’s the public that pays the price,” said Gascón.  “California has decriminalized recreational cannabis use, but a marijuana conviction continues to serve as a barrier to employment, housing, student loans and more.  Lack of access to employment and housing are two primary drivers of recidivism, so until we clear these records it’s government that is effectively holding these people back and impeding public safety.  I’m hopeful that this partnership will inspire many prosecutors who have cited resource constraints to join this common-sense effort and provide this relief.”

The project falls squarely in Code for America’s wheelhouse.

“We believe government can work dramatically better than it does today, and the criminal justice system is one of the areas where we are most failing the American people,” said Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America. “By reimagining existing government systems through technology and user-centered design, we can help governments rethink incarceration, reduce recidivism, and restore opportunity.  Code for America, in partnership with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, will remove barriers to employment, housing, health, and education for thousands of Californians, and demonstrate that our institutions can deliver on the promise voters intended when they passed propositions like Proposition 64.”

The San Francisco pilot could also have far-reaching results; Code for America plans to expand the pilot to 3 to 5 other California counties with the target of clearing 250,000 convictions by 2019.