66,000 more people in California are seeing their criminal records cleared of marijuana-related offenses. The Los Angeles District Attorney, Jackie Lacey, along with the nonprofit Code for America, dismissed those convictions as part of the nonprofit “Clear My Record” pilot program. The hope is that by clearing the records of people who remain marked by incidents that are no longer considered crimes, those people will have better access to housing, educational opportunities, and jobs. Those newly cleared cases include 62,000 felony marijuana convictions, in cases that date back as far as 1961. Felony convictions can include cultivation, possession for sale, and sale or transport of marijuana. The other 4,000 were misdemeanors, which typically refers simply to possession of marijuana. On top of those two criteria, District Attorney Lacey went a step further, saying anyone 50 years or older who hasn't had a felony conviction of any kind in the past decade, or who successfully completed probation for his/her marijuana conviction would have their cannabis-related offense cleared from their record. Clear my Record
A new online tool to clear cannabis convictions
The Clear My Record pilot is starting up in San Francisco, Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Contra Costa Counties, along with Los Angeles County. However, the online service is available in 14 counties total: Alameda, Contra Costa, Fresno, Marin, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Solano, Sonoma, Stanislaus, Ventura, and Yolo. The online application takes only 10 minutes to fill out, but Code for America is still working to get the word out. “In total, these five pilots will help reduce or dismiss more than 85,000 Proposition 64 eligible convictions,” the DA's office said. In 2016, Californians passed Proposition 64, which allowed recreational use of marijuana and got rid of several cannabis-related crimes. The law also specified that it would apply retroactively, so if you were convicted of a crime that no longer existed, your record would be cleared. The State Department of Justice says the law could lead over 218,000 convictions across the state to be either expunged or downgraded. However, the Proposition itself didn't provide an agency or mechanism to actually do that. Instead, people had to do the work themselves to file petitions with the court to recall or dismiss their cases. The problem was, it was hard to get the word out about the new law, and even if people did know about it, many found the process time-consuming, expensive, and confusing. The result was, a year after the law went into effect, fewer than 5,000 people statewide filed petitions, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. That's less than 3% of eligible convicts. That's where Assembly Bill-1793 comes in. That law required the Justice Department to review state records of all marijuana convictions from 1975 until when Prop 64 passed in 2016, and see whether they were eligible for recall, dismissal, or re-designation as a misdemeanor rather than a felony. Under that law, eligible records must be cleared, or a system to do so implemented, by July 1st, 2020. “The Clear My Record Application allows District Attorneys to securely and accurately evaluate eligibility for convictions by reading and interpreting criminal history data from the California Department of Justice,” explained the LA County District Attorney's Office. “Code for America has received an overwhelming interest from counties in accessing these resources to carry out the law. Code for America stands ready to work with counties that have not yet used this technology to help them automate the record clearance process and provide relief as required by law.” Evonne Silva, Code for America's Senior Program Director of Criminal Justice, says the expungement of those 85,000 total records shows success for the Clear My Record Pilot. “This is a clear demonstration that automatic record clearance is possible at scale and can help to right the wrongs of the failed war on drugs. Looking forward, Code for America stands at the ready to help all California counties provide this much-needed relief in advance of the July 1, 2020 deadline.”
A start to righting past wrongs
Of the 53,000 people seeing relief from those 66,000 convictions in Los Angeles, the DA's office says about 45% are Latino, 32% are black, and 20% are white. “The dismissal of tens of thousands of old cannabis-related convictions in Los Angeles County will bring much-needed relief to communities of color that disproportionately suffered the unjust consequences of our nation’s drug laws,” said Lacey. “I am privileged to be part of a system dedicated to finding innovative solutions and implementing meaningful criminal justice reform that gives all people the support they need to build the life they deserve.” This is not the first major push since then to get a move on expunging records. In January of 2018, for instance, the San Francisco District Attorney dismissed more than 3,000 misdemeanor offenses and re-sentenced nearly 5,000 felony convictions. San Francisco had reason to want to get a jump on reviewing those cases: the city's Cannabis Equity Report showed that when cannabis-related arrests skyrocketed in 2000, the percentage of black people making up arrests was 41%. That's at a time when African Americans represented just 8% of San Francisco's population. Code for America works by making government services more available to the average American, creating online platforms and outreach programs. The nonprofit started up in 2011, initially working with professionals in the tech and design industries to create new services for state and local governments to better serve their communities. “For our government to truly serve the people in the 21st century,” Code for America says on its website, “we must do three things:
- Be good at digital. Digital skills must be embedded at all levels of government, and owned by the people responsible for delivering programs and services to the public.
- Ensure policy and implementation work together, and are centered around the needs of the people. Linear processes, moving from policy, to implementation to stasis, must transform into iterative cycles where policy and implementation are informed by each other and are focused on people's needs.
- Be a platform for civic engagement and participation. Government must learn to incorporate productive contributions from the public, so that everyone can help make government work.”
Code for America is hoping its Clear my Record program will serve as a resource for District Attorney's Offices across California, and eventually the United States, to streamline the review of marijuana convictions that are no longer considered illegal.