The legalization of cannabis through 2016’s voter-approved Proposition 64 is pretty much old news at this point; the line at Apothercarium has died down, and the Board of Supervisors has hashed out some of the biggest issues facing the new legal industry. But legalization affects far more than just your average Joe pot smoker and cannabis entrepreneurs; it also means that thousands of old convictions for possession could be expunged. In San Francisco, District Attorney George Gascón teamed up with Code for America last year to expedite the clearance of convictions. It was no small task do it in without the use of technology; reviewing each case manually can take up to 15 minutes to just determine if a conviction is eligible. From January to May 2018, Gascón’s office had only cleared 428.
But using pretty simple coding, thousands of cases could be reviewed in just a few minutes. On Monday, Gascón announced that his office and Code for America had collectively cleared 9,362 convictions — many of which occurred without the effort, and perhaps even the knowledge — of the people who held them. This accounts for what Gascón’s office believes is every eligible conviction dating back to 1975.
“We really don’t have a vehicle to go back and notify 9,300 people,” Gascón explains. “We’re hoping that those that understand that they may be subject to this can then call us and say ‘hey is my conviction cleared clear’.”
Clearing convictions can have a massive ripple effect on peoples’ lives. Of the more than 9,000 cleared convictions, 1,336 people now no longer have a felony on their record, and 729 now have no record at all.
“We’re offering people an opportunity to get housing, to get an education, to get employment. A felony conviction — if you’re a parent — may preclude you from participating in school activities with your kids,” Gascón says. “This can go on and on and on. We believe in giving people a second chance, as a society, and a community. And yet everything we do really speak against that. We keep people from getting good housing, from getting a good education, from participating in the education of their kids, and then we wonder why people reoffend, when we marginalize them to such an extent.”
As can be expected based on the racist war on drugs, 33 percent of the people who had these convictions were African American, and 27 percent were Latinx.
“We believe the work that has gone on in the past few months creates a real blueprint for the future, and the development of policy and technology that expands, streamlines, and automates the clearance process at scale,” says Jennifer Pahlka, Code for America founder and executive director. “We believe that contact with the criminal justice system shouldn’t — and really can’t — be a life sentence for people in our community.”
If used nationwide, Code for America believes this style of collaboration could be used to clear more than 250,000 records in states where marijuana laws have changed by the end of 2019.
“Prosecutors should act to address the inherent unfairness of penalizing people for activity that is no longer illegal,” says Gascón. “Using technology, we have been able to proactively bring greater racial equity and fairness to marijuana legalization in California. I am thrilled to see other counties and states following suit by offering similar relief in their communities. It’s the right thing to do.”
If a member of the public believes their prior marijuana conviction should be dismissed or reclassified by the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, they are encouraged to contact them by phone at 415-553-1751, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.