Over a Million Past Cannabis Convictions May be Slated for Automatic Expungement in California
Back in April of this year, many headlines were made and many backs were patted over the news that prosecutors in Los Angeles County were moving to clear the criminal records of as many as 50,000 people who had past cannabis-related crimes weighing them down in society.
This option of expungement was touted as a benefit of Prop 64, the voter approved 2016 ballot initiative that created a regulated and taxed adult use cannabis market in the state of California. Since the new law of the land would have protected countless people pre-2016 from the stigma that goes along with even a low-level cannabis conviction, the idea is that expungement would provide the criminal justice reform to make right those past wrongs.
Officials in LA County expected a “tsunami” of expungement requests in the aftermath of November 2016, but the reality was that the process was not marketed effectively to the general public so many of those eligible still don’t know their rights. Additionally, those that did explore the option found the process to be confusing, lengthy, and virtually impossible to navigate without costly legal representation.
So, with much fanfare, LA County prosecutors heroically announced that they would systematically review all potentially eligible cases and automatically expunge the records that qualified. They didn’t mention how many years back they would be looking, but they boasted a goal of 50k expungements.
That is a respectable number, to be sure, but LA County is home to over 10 million residents. The entire state of Illinois, on the other hand, has over 12 million residents and they just announced the automatic expungement of nearly 800,000 past pot convictions.
Something isn’t adding up
One of the few cannabis-friendly moves that former Cali governor Jerry Brown made on his way out the door was his signing of Assembly Bill 1793 – the Cannabis Resentencing Bill.
Though he signed this bill back in September of 2018, the first trigger mechanism in it was pulled this past Monday, on July 1st, 2019 and the implications should be far-reaching and highly beneficial to those with California State cannabis convictions in their past.
Basically, when Prop 64 was passed, some acts that had once been labeled as felonies were recategorized as misdemeanors while acts that had once been labeled as misdemeanors were recategorized as either conduct worthy of a citation/ticket or of no repercussion whatsoever from law enforcement.
Additionally, Prop 64 gave those with prior cannabis convictions the right to expungement – you can now petition the courts to either recategorize your conviction(s) pursuant to the new law (as noted above) or have your conviction(s) wiped out altogether if the old charges are no longer considered a crime.
Here in California, African Americans make up just 6% of the overall general population, but they represent more than a quarter of our inmates locked up over marijuana-related offenses. California is not unique in this injustice, unfortunately, but cannabis reform has brought criminal justice reform to the party and some counties immediately embraced the opportunity to balance the scales of justice a bit.
The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, for example, had identified about 5,900 eligible cases well before Fmr. Gov. Brown inked his name on AB 1793, and 9,300 more cases were flagged in San Francisco back in February for expungement.
Every one of those cases matters, and we salute them for that effort, but those numbers just don’t jive with decades of prohibition and lazy law enforcement.
Though Prop 64 opened the door for mass expungement, it never offered a process to get people through that door. AB 1793 was aimed at correcting that oversight. The passage of AB 1793 means that those with qualifying convictions in their past no longer need to petition the court for expungement. Instead, the bill mandates that the Department of Justice review the records in the state’s criminal history information database in order to identify past convictions that are eligible for dismissal or redesignation.
Their deadline to complete that review was Monday, July 1st.
No headlines, no pats on the back that we saw.
Now, with that review supposedly complete, the bill requires the courts to automatically recategorize or wholly dismiss the convictions pursuant to Prop 64 by July 1, 2020. Of course, state prosecutors have the next 364 days to challenge any of the cases deemed eligible during the review process but it’s highly doubtful they have the resources to relitigate decades of dimebag busts.
Those dimebag busts, however, have spoiled countless lives in California over the years where even a simple misdemeanor for possession could impact a person’s ability to secure employment, housing, medical benefits, education, citizenship, and more. Hell, an old conviction over an act that is now totally legal could even keep a person from being able to enter the legal cannabis industry! Hopefully, AB 1793 will end that Mobius Loop of stupidity for many residents.
The California State Department of Justice has been tasked with automatically updating the state summary criminal history information database as information is submitted to the Department by the courts.
The non-profit and forward-thinking organization Code for America has been instrumental in assisting individual municipalities with their own localized expungement efforts. Their innovative algorithm can allegedly scan millions of records in a matter of minutes and accurately identify eligible candidates for review.
With the review deadline unceremoniously passing earlier this week, we are supposed to believe that all eligible cases have been identified, statewide.
Illinois is talking about 800,000 records wiped clean.
Cali could easily number well over one million records expunged.
Honestly, anything less will not be very convincing.
If you are looking for information regarding a past conviction and want to know if your case is under review, you can contact either the district attorney’s office or the public defender’s office in the county of your conviction. Do not contact the Department of Justice about your case. They will not help you.
If you wish to review the accuracy and completeness of your criminal history record, please visit Criminal Records - Request Your Own. Your criminal history record may not be updated if your case has not been reviewed, is still being reviewed, or if information has not yet been provided to the Department of Justice.
There are so very few bright spots when it comes to Prop 64 and “legal weed” these days, but AB 1793 is a ray of positivity and we encourage anyone with a past cannabis conviction to stay engaged in the expungement process until they - and everyone else - are free from the rapidly fading stigma of reefer madness.