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Computerized Cannabis Conviction Expungement: San Francisco Leads the Way

San Francisco Leads Digital Expungement Push
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Computerized Cannabis Conviction Expungement: San Francisco Leads the Way

San Francisco has teamed with a software company to automate the process of conviction expungement — a push that could serve as a model for other jurisdictions across North America.

San Francisco is preparing to expunge more than 9,000 cannabis convictions dating back to 1975 — the culmination of a year-long review of court records prompted by California’s 2016 legalization initiative. Misdemeanors and felonies alike are to be dismissed through a pioneering automated clearance system.

“It was the morally right thing to do,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón told the Los Angeles Times. “If you have a felony conviction, you are automatically excluded in so many ways from participating in your community.”

Gascón said his office will expunge 9,362 felony and misdemeanor cases, including the 1,230 his office has already cleared. It seems like the bureaucracy is actually being uncharacteristically proactive here, as only 23 people had come forward to demand clearance of their old pot convictions since legalization. That, by Gascón’s own admission, was likely due to the daunting nature of the prospect.

“You have to hire an attorney. You have to petition the court. You have to come for a hearing,” Gascón said in an interview with National Public Radio last year. “It’s a very expensive and very cumbersome process. And the reality is that the majority of the people that were punished and were the ones that suffered in this war on marijuana, war on drugs nationally, were people that can ill afford to pay an attorney.”

After poring over records manually and identifying some 1,200 eligible cases, San Francisco officials teamed up with Code For America, a nonprofit that assists governments in streamlining their work with information technology. The thousands of additional cases will now be sent back to courts for processing.

“It’s incumbent that we, as law enforcement leaders, continue to evolve how we advance fairness and public safety in our respective communities,” Gascón told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I hope that our success with Code for America can act as a catalyst for other leaders looking to engage in similar innovative and out-of-the-box methods to reform and rethink what our criminal justice system looks like.”

Cyber-Expungement in Fog City

Code for America employed its specially designed “Clear My Record” algorithm to examine convictions and identify those eligible for expungement on the basis of what is today no longer a crime. 

“Contact with the criminal justice system should not be a life sentence, so we’ve been working to reimagine the record-clearance process,” Jennifer Pahlka, Code for America’s founder and executive director, told the Chronicle. “This new approach, which is both innovative and common sense, changes the scale and speed of justice.”

There is the inevitable disgruntlement from some law enforcement voices. John Lovell, legislative counsel to the California Narcotic Officers Association, told the LA Times: “To simply embark on an across-the-board expungement of 9,300 [cases] without looking at any of the surrounding factors on any of those cases strikes us as cavalier irresponsibility.”

But just as inevitably, the figures reveal a glaring racial disparity in who was getting busted for cannabis. While San Francisco is only about five percent black, a third of all cannabis-related convictions in the time period reviewed went to black people. Latinos make up about 15 percent of the city’s population, but 27 percent of cannabis convictions, according to Gascón’s office.

A Model for Other Jurisdictions 

While San Francisco is the first, several California cities are preparing to start expunging cannabis convictions, as allowed by a state law passed last year. Code for America hopes to clear a quarter million convictions across the state by the end of the year. The state law sets a goal of clearing all past cannabis-related convictions by July 2020.  

Other states may soon be following, as demands for expungement mount across the country. New Jersey’s Gov. Phil Murphy is pledging to clear cannabis convictions as part of his legalization plan. The state judiciary says New Jersey already receives some 10,000 expungement petitions each year, from people who have done their time and want to make a fresh start. But there has been little progress in clearing this backlog. “It’s like you’re allowing more water in, but the cracks are still there,” Sarah Lageson, a Rutgers University criminal justice professor who runs a program helping people clear their records, told NJ Advance Media.

Lawmakers in Missouri, which passed a medical marijuana law last year, have introduced a bill allowing expungement of prior misdemeanor cannabis offenses for medicinal users.

And the Marijuana Justice Act, now pending on Capitol Hill, requires expungement of records related to “marijuana use or possession” offenses—a provision that could potentially free many thousands nationwide from prisons and jails.

Canada has also been anticipating expungement since legalization took effect there last year, albeit very uncertainly, with the federal government yet to move on the matter. Parliament is only now considering a bill that would bar denial of housing or employment to those with cannabis convictions — a measure assailed by advocates as “the smallest of steps.”

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