By Alene Tchekmedyian
After recreational marijuana was legalized in California, prosecutors in Los Angeles County expected a "tsunami" of petitions from people looking to clear their old criminal records.
But the process turned out to be cumbersome and difficult to navigate, so most people didn't even try.
"Frankly, very few people took the legal action required to clear their records," L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey said at a downtown news conference Monday. "And yet, the will of the voters was clear."
In a move to carry out that will, prosecutors in L.A. and San Joaquin counties announced plans to automatically dismiss or reduce some 54,000 marijuana-related convictions, part of a growing movement to offer a clean slate to Californians hamstrung by their past now that pot is legal.
An estimated 50,000 convictions in L.A. County and 4,000 more in San Joaquin County are eligible. It's unclear how far back those convictions go, but many involve possessing a small amount of marijuana and could date back decades. Prosecutors and public defenders are still working out how to notify people of the changes to their records.
The effort is part of a partnership with Code for America, a nonprofit tech organization that developed a computer algorithm to quickly analyze county data to determine which cases are eligible to be cleared under Proposition 64.
Prosecutors said decades of drug enforcement disproportionately targeted minorities. Studies have shown that people of color are more likely to be arrested and punished in connection with marijuana offenses, even though whites, blacks and Latinos use and sell marijuana at similar rates. The result, critics say, is a cycle of poverty and incarceration that has kept many minorities from getting jobs, going to school or finding housing.
A 2016 study found that although African Americans make up just 6% of California's population, they account for almost a quarter of those serving jail time exclusively for marijuana offenses.
"Those past harms were passed from generation to generation," San Joaquin Dist. Atty. Tori Verber Salazar said. "This allows us to go back and correct those mistakes."
Salazar said her office slogged through a similar process without using technology to clear eligible convictions under Proposition 47, a 2014 law that reduced some low-level, non-violent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. It took four years to process 26,000 cases, she said, at a cost of $2.5 million.
Code for America's algorithm, she said, mined through the data in 12 seconds. She estimated the technology would save the county $1 million in time and resources.
At marijuana dispensaries in Southern California, Monday's announcement was well-received.
"Now people who will have their convictions cleared can go back to living a normal life," said Molly Collins, a 29-year-old budtender at Green Goddess Collective in Venice. "This is how we're seeing L.A. make better changes."
In February, San Francisco became the first to take on such an initiative, pledging to clear 9,300 convictions dating back decades as part of a sweeping effort to rethink "the war on drugs."
Talks are underway to expand the program to other California counties, as well as other states where marijuana has been legalized.
Proposition 64 legalized, among other things, the possession and purchase of up to an ounce of marijuana and allowed people to grow up to six plants for personal use.
Under the measure, people convicted of marijuana possession can petition to have those convictions expunged if they don't pose a risk to public safety. People also can petition to have some crimes reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor, including possession of more than an ounce of marijuana by a person who is 18 or older.
Nearly 60% of voters in Los Angeles County supported the measure.
Lacey, who is up for reelection next year, said in the past that her office would not automatically dismiss or reduce marijuana convictions and that people seeking to clear their records should do so using the courts.
But the Code for America software could prove useful as California continues to pursue criminal justice reforms, she said Monday.
It was uncertain when all the marijuana convictions would be cleared. A measure signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last year mandates that the state compile a list of all Californians eligible to have crimes expunged under Proposition 64 by July 1, with the goal of having all past marijuana-related convictions reduced or cleared in the state by 2020.
Code for America has its own goal -- to expand the pilot program to more California counties and clear 250,000 convictions by the end of this year. The organization has previously delved into the realm of criminal justice, in 2016 creating Clear My Record, an online application that connects people with lawyers to clear criminal records across California.
"We never intended to punish people for life for crimes that are this minor, or that we no longer view as crimes," said Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America.
As the medicinal and recreational use of marijuana has gained wider acceptance across the nation, lawmakers in a number of states have been wrestling with how to remove marijuana convictions from people's records.
Missouri lawmakers are considering a bill that would expunge convictions for medical marijuana patients, as it is now legal there for medicinal use. In New York, where the governor has proposed legalizing recreational pot use, officials are exploring a means of possibly expunging or sealing conviction records.
Priscilla Vilchis, owner and CEO of a medicinal and recreational marijuana cultivation company in Las Vegas and Lynwood, said the change will create more job opportunities.
"Many people have not been able to apply or even qualify for jobs in this industry," Vilchis, 32, said. "This helps not only the entrepreneur, but the people who will now be able to apply for these jobs. This is going to put food on their table."
Times staff writers Alexa Diaz and Joseph Serna contributed to this report.
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