With the recent decriminalization of marijuana possession in the state of Vermont, it is now time for Bennington County to take the proactive step of assisting those with past violations in getting their convictions expunged.
Beginning July 1, it will no longer be a crime for a 21-year-old to possess one ounce of marijuana or to grow two mature plants and four immature plants in the state of Vermont. This is a result of H.511 passed by the Vermont Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott. Approximately 12 more states are considering marijuana legalization this year making 2018 the most active in the legalization movement.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, more than 574,000 American citizens were charged with simple possession in 2016. In light of the shifting attitudes towards marijuana and the march towards decriminalization, what happens to those who have previously been convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession charges over the years? Does it make sense to burden these people with lifelong criminal records for conduct that no longer constitutes a crime? If there has been a determination by the Legislature that certain acts are no longer criminal, should people continue to suffer the ramifications of an old law? Simply, the answer is no.
The next logical step for a compassionate society is to expunge the records of people caught in this predicament. People with prior marijuana convictions have roadblocks to becoming productive members of society. Access to employment and higher education is more difficult. There are prohibitions against serving in the military. Obtaining student loans can be problematic. Availability to housing, particularly apartment rentals, is more limited. These consequences spill over to remaining family members, including children, who are affected by the lack of financial and other forms of support. Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan stated, “Criminal records keep people marginalized. We need to give people the opportunity to be productive citizens.”
It is unrealistic to expect that people desiring expungement would have the ability to undertake and navigate the lengthy and bureaucratic legal process alone. Short of a legislative fix, state’s attorneys throughout Vermont should make their offices available to assist these individuals with old misdemeanor possession convictions in expunging their records. The state’s attorneys for Chittenden and Windsor counties have already showed wisdom by embarking on this process.
Bennington County needs to take a leadership role and be at the forefront of this process. It is an example of how our county can participate in the criminal justice reform movement that is sweeping the country. With the expenditure of very little money and time, we can demonstrate our empathy, common sense, fairness and commitment to justice. Turning a blind eye to this issue is to demonstrate a lack of caring. We are better than that.