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San Francisco DA Works to Clear Marijuana Records

PHOTO Nan Palmero


San Francisco DA Works to Clear Marijuana Records

Rather than push paper, to correct record in the era of marijuana legalization, trend-setting prosecutor turns to machines.

George Gascón must clean up a mess, a blunder not of the San Francisco district attorney’s doing. To fix it, the police chief-turned-TED-talk-giving prosecutor is turning to a familiar Silicon Valley trope: the algorithm.

When California voters approved Prop. 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, in November 2016, they allowed for past marijuana-related convictions to be cleared from the record books, but some restrictions applied.

Records would not be cleared automatically. Paperwork needed to be filed. And paperwork does not get filed by itself — you need a lawyer for that. And lawyers do not get hired by themselves — for that, you need money, a lack thereof often being the very reason a minor marijuana offense has brought you into court in the first place.

Little wonder, then, that more than a year after Prop. 64 passed, fewer than 250 out of almost 8,000 cannabis ex-cons had successfully had their records cleared.

Aware of this iniquity, earlier this year, Gascón announced that his office — which, yes, did the work in the first place that created the records — would do the work to eliminate the records, and would start combing through decades of marijuana convictions to find cases eligible to be expunged.

But that’s a lot of paper — a phone book’s worth, for those of us old enough to remember the White Pages. Under current U.S. senator and rumored 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris, San Francisco prosecutors pressed charges in 2,500 to 3,000 marijuana cases a year.

Through this week, his office has prepared 962 motions to dismiss, his office told reporters, with roughly 5,000 more cases to review.

So here’s Gascón, three months later, staring at a pile of paper. To keep his pledge to purge records, Gascón is pursuing a shortcut of sorts. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported this week, Gascón has enlisted a troop of nerds from Code For America, the government-efficiency nonprofit.

Code for America will devise an algorithm — the same order of tasks that improves your Google searches and performs nearly every other function that led you to read this article on your digital device — to identify convictions eligible to be expunged.

In this way, computers will do in seconds the job that would take Gascón’s relieved paper-pushers months or longer. They are then free for other, better, less soul-crushing things than combing dusty paperwork for crimes that — in retrospect, and probably at the time — shouldn’t have been pursued in the first place.

Gascón has already begun a trend of sorts in proactively scrubbing the record books for cannabis convictions. Following his lead, prosecutors in Seattle and other marijuana-friendly major American cities announced similar plans. This is the idea with the algorithm gambit.

“We heard from prosecutors from around the state saying they’d like to [expunge records] but don’t have the resources,” Gascón told the newspaper, adding that from now on, any district attorney who doesn’t follow suit and get the machines out prefers to keep marijuana offenses on the books — thus putting every pro-prohibition prosecutor on the spot.

“What Code for America is doing is going to basically draw a line between those that can’t and those that won’t,” he added. “Anyone that talks about not having the resources — once we get this product online — is basically telling us, ‘I won’t do it.’”

Such stakes are clear, but aren’t likely to shame some old-school law-and-order types in action. Still, at least you’ll know where they stand — not that there was much doubt before.

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