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In Wake of Prop. 64, S.F. District Attorney Turns to Technology for Help - June 14, 2018 - SF Weekly
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In Wake of Prop. 64, S.F. District Attorney Turns to Technology for Help

As a co-author of California’s Proposition 64, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón is leading the charge to ensure the law’s provision of clearing past cannabis convictions is fully realized. On May 15, Gascón announced his plans to team with Code for America — a non-profit The New York Times once described as a project “which aims to import the efficiency of the Web into government infrastructures” — in order to help people expunge certain past cannabis convictions. Together, the D.A.’s office and Code for America intend to automate the task, removing the burden for each individual to pursue relief on their own.

“[Gascón] was the first District Attorney to announce that he was going to be proactively dismissing and reducing old marijuana convictions,” San Francisco District Attorney’s Office spokesman Max Szabo explains. “That created some momentum and began a national push where now you’ve seen jurisdictions from Philadelphia to Seattle to Los Angeles follow along.”

While Szabo estimates that San Francisco has 8,000 cases to process, he says that one intention behind this pilot project with Code for America is to provide a way for other municipalities to make good on their word.

“A lot of people say that the system is broken,” Szabo notes. “Now that Code for America is saying that they are basically open for business and taking calls from other agencies, it separates the ‘can’t’ from the ‘won’t.’ Those folks that said that they can’t — well, now they can. Now they can call Code for America, versus those district attorneys who may have said that they can’t, but really the reality is they just won’t.”

Of the 8,000 cases currently under consideration, Szabo says roughly 3,000 are misdemeanors, which the D.A.’s office will handle in-house. It’s the 5,000 felony cases that Code for America will help with. Prop. 64 allows for the vast majority of prior cannabis convictions to be reduced or outright cleared (the exceptions include violent crimes, individuals who are currently on parole, and super-strike convictions). Right now, the goal is to have all qualified cases submitted to the courts, which will then be tasked with issuing a final ruling on each individual conviction.

As an example of how Code for America’s technology helps automate and streamline the process, Szabo mentions a feature that creates a motion (a written request to the court) for the case in question.

“Literally, we just run the information through this program,” he says. “It automatically spits out the motions, and we just hit print.”

In addition to easing the workload of the D.A.’s office, the move to partner with Code for America reflects Gascón’s desire to put the onus of expunging records on the institution that first created them, improving San Francisco’s public safety in the process.

“Is it the public that’s better suited to take on this burden or is it the government, given they’re the ones that actually instituted this burden for so long?” Szabo asks. “If you have a marijuana conviction, that actually impacts your ability to get a job, housing, student loans, and all kinds of other things. We know that some of the biggest drivers of recidivism are a lack of access to housing and employment, so, in addition to being the right thing to do, this is something that’s really good for public safety, too.”

This message seems to echo the mission of Code for America, which was founded in 2009. Head of Marketing Elizabeth Smith confirms that the organization is especially focused on how to help bring our nation’s court systems up to speed.

“At Code for America, we believe government can work dramatically better than it does today, and the criminal justice system is one of the areas where we are most failing the American people,” Smith says. “In the digital age, we have the ability to use technology to create systemic change — to help the government automatically clear all eligible criminal records and remove a significant barrier for people.”

While the goal for now remains expunging prior cannabis convictions, the usefulness of the programs offered by Code for America doesn’t stop there. The D.A.’s office isn’t ready to announce any further plans, but it’s not hard to see how other aspects of the justice system might benefit from the expedited organization and analysis. For now, the goal is to encourage other jurisdictions to follow in San Francisco’s footsteps and embrace this tool.

As of January, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) reported that nearly 4,000 people had petitioned California courts under the provisions of Prop. 64. For context, the DPA estimates that 500,000 people were arrested for cannabis-related crimes between 2006 and 2015. Now that California has the means to right these wrongs, the time is long overdue for them to act — and swiftly.

Zack Ruskin covers news, culture, and music for SF Weekly.
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