By Joseph Serna
San Francisco prosecutors announced Monday they would move to expunge 9,300 marijuana-related convictions dating back decades, part of a sweeping effort to rethink "the war on drugs" now that pot is legal in California.
The announcement culminated a year-long review of marijuana convictions in San Francisco, which critics say disproportionately punished minority communities and made it more difficult for those with criminal records to get jobs and other essentials.
Other California counties, including Los Angeles, are considering similar efforts, though none have gone as far as San Francisco. The Los Angeles County district attorney's office estimates there have been 40,000 felony convictions involving pot-related offenses since1993, but prosecutors have not said how many of those could be eligible for being expunged.
"It was the morally right thing to do," said San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascón. "If you have a felony conviction, you are automatically excluded in so many ways from participating in your community."
California has become a leader in criminal justice reform, including reducing sentences for lower-level crimes and pushing for rehab instead of incarceration for some drug offenses. Advocates say clearing pot convictions is an essential next step.
But some law enforcement groups are wary.
"To simply embark on an across-the-board expungement of 9,300 without looking at any of the surrounding factors on any of those cases strikes us as cavalier irresponsibility," said John Lovell, legislative counsel to the California Narcotic Officers' Assn.
Gascón said his office would review every marijuana-related conviction to find ones eligible for expungement under Prop 64, which was passed by voters in 2016. Though individuals can request expungements themselves, the process is known to be difficult to navigate and relatively few attempted it.
Gascon's office initially began the expungement process by hand and found about 1,000 cases to clear, but then teamed up with Code for America, a national nonprofit that uses technology to make government more efficient.
Coders there created an algorithm that combed through San Francisco's digitized criminal records going back to 1975 in just minutes.
The program automatically fills out the required forms that can be turned in to the court for processing.
After about a year of work, Gascón announced on Monday they'd found 9,362 cases that were eligible to be expunged. All that's left to be done is for the courts to process the requests, he said.
Employment isn't the only limitation that some people encounter after they've served their sentences, Gascón said. They can also face barriers to education, housing and employment, and may even be barred from a child's school field trip because of a conviction.
Proposition 64 legalized, among other things, the possession and purchase of up to an ounce of marijuana and allowed individuals to grow up to six plants for personal use. The measure also allowed people convicted of marijuana possession to petition the courts to have those convictions expunged as long as the person does not 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.
"This isn't a political thing. This is about dignity. People pay their debt to society. People pay the consequences for something we no longer consider a crime," he said. "They should not be jumping through hoops for this. They should just get it."
Everyone's marijuana conviction is eligible to be expunged, regardless of whether it's tied to other criminal offenses, Gascon's office said Monday. Officials had initially stated it was for standalone marijuana convictions but have since corrected their statement.
In the end, the project removed what had been a disproportionate number of convictions hanging over the heads of the city's blacks and Latinos. Though San Francisco is about 5% black, that community saw a third of all marijuana-related convictions. Latinos make up about 15% of the city, but 27% of marijuana convictions, Gascón's office said.
Gascón, who is not seeking a third term in office, said his ambition is to show what Code for America's algorithm did in San Francisco and take that approach statewide.
"We're beginning to separate those that can't from those that won't, because no longer can you say 'I can't do it,' " he said.
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 the issue of 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. New Jersey residents can have their convictions expunged, but the process has reportedly proved challenging. In New York, where the governor has proposed legalizing recreational pot use, officials are exploring the means of possibly expunging or sealing conviction records.
"Until something has been shown, it is hard for people to believe it will work," said Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America. "Our theory of change is if you show what's possible you can reset the expectation bar."
It could go a long way to helping California with Assembly Bill 1793, signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown last year. The bill mandated the state build a list of all Californians eligible to have crimes expunged under Prop 64 by July 1, with the goal of having all past marijuana-related crimes reduced or cleared in the state by 2020.
"It's like the stars aligned for our automatic record clearance tool!" Code for America tweeted upon the law's passage in November.
San Francisco's expungements only date back to 1975, the earliest digitized records that the county's prosecutors maintain, Gascón said.
In Los Angeles County, officials said Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey's office is exploring the use of different technologies to assist in the evaluation of Prop. 64 cases.
Code for America plans to expand the pilot program to other California counties with the target of clearing 250,000 convictions by the end of this year. The organization has previously delved into the realm of criminal justice. In 2016, it created Clear My Record, an online application that connects people with lawyers to clear criminal records across California.
Staff writer Sarah Parvini contributed to this report.
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