When recreational marijuana use was legalized in California, it presented an opportunity to reduce or expunge convictions for possession crimes that made it harder for some people to get ahead in life.
Since then, some counties have worked to address those convictions, taking on the lengthy bureaucratic process so that people would not have to wade through the legal world on their own.
San Francisco led the charge, announcing in January that the district attorney’s office would retroactively apply the new marijuana law to prior convictions dating as far back as 1975. But for prosecutors, the chance to change those convictions also came with a challenge: It required a lot of resources to plow through thousands of cases.
On Tuesday, Dist. Atty. George Gascón announced what he believes to be the solution. San Francisco is working with a nonprofit organization to create a program that would automatically clear eligible convictions under California’s new marijuana legalization law.
The program, created by Code for America, will allow the district attorney’s office to use new technology to determine eligibility for record clearance under state law, automatically fill out the required forms and generate a completed motion in PDF format. The district attorney’s office can then file the completed motion with the court.
“When the government uses 20th century tools to tackle 21st century problems, it’s the public that pays the price,” Gascón said. “We’re really talking about providing people a second chance.”
Under Proposition 64, nearly 5,000 felony marijuana convictions in San Francisco will be reviewed, recalled and resentenced, and more than 3,000 misdemeanors that were sentenced prior to the proposition’s passage will be dismissed and sealed, the district attorney’s office said.
Proposition 64 legalizes, among other things, the possession and purchase of up to an ounce of marijuana and allows individuals to grow up to six plants for personal use. The measure also allows people convicted of marijuana possession crimes eliminated by the new law to petition the courts to have those convictions expunged from their records as long as the person does not pose a risk to public safety.
People also can petition to have some crimes reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor, including possession of more than an ounce of marijuana by a person who is 18 or older.
The new program will clear people’s records of crimes that can be barriers to employment and housing, the district attorney said. Lack of access to employment and housing drive recidivism, Gascón said, adding that he hopes the partnership will inspire other prosecutors who have cited resource constraints to follow suit.
In February, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey said petitioning through the courts would be faster for people seeking relief than waiting for her office to review the case files. The same month, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a motion to develop a plan to help make it easier for people to reduce or clear minor pot convictions.
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office estimates there have been 40,000 felony convictions involving pot-related offenses since 1993. It is unclear how many of those people are eligible for relief or how many have petitioned for it.
Although “drug use in this country has not been limited to people of color” in California, minorities — particularly African Americans and Latinos — have been arrested and jailed for marijuana offenses at much higher rates than white people, Gascón said. Many of those affected are poor, he added, or lack the resources needed to change their criminal records on their own.
“It’s about leveling the playing field,” he said. “Justice is supposed to be about fairness and equity.”
At a news conference Tuesday morning, the district attorney said that he understands that some people may be hesitant to support the program.
“If we are able to reduce some of the areas that preclude people from getting housing and employment … that will improve the public safety picture for all of us,” he said.
The district attorney’s office said Gascón and Code for America began exploring the possibility of automating the process in February, after recognizing how “resource intensive” it was to wipe out or reduce convictions.
Some 962 motions to dismiss a misdemeanor marijuana conviction have been prepared, 528 have been submitted to the San Francisco Superior Court and 428 have been granted, the district attorney’s office said, but felony convictions take longer because they require an analysis of rap sheets in order to determine eligibility.
Code for America plans to expand the pilot program to other California counties with the target of clearing 250,000 convictions by 2019. The organization has previously delved into the realm of criminal justice: In 2016, it created Clear My Record, an online application that connects people with lawyers to clear criminal records across California.
“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 Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka said in a statement.
The program, she said, will demonstrate that “our institutions can deliver on the promise voters intended when they passed propositions like Proposition 64.”