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On August 27, the California legislature passed a bill that would allow for automatic expungement of marijuana convictions. Specifically, the law authorizes the state to reduce or dismiss and seal records of offenses, such as possession, that now are legal. It also allows for reduction of convictions, such as from felonies to misdemeanors.

California voters passed an adult-use initiative in November 2016 that contained expungement provisions. That law required those with convictions to petition courts for expungement. The legislature has taken this process a step further by passing Assembly Bill 1793, which directs the state to expunge records without waiting for petitions. The bill now awaits the governor’s signature and will become law if he signs it.

Cleaning the slate

Criminal convictions, especially felony convictions, can be a barrier to employment, housing, and benefits. With expungement, people who have been unable to obtain benefits, jobs, or housing; get college loans; or acquire a professional license will be given a new opportunity to do so. For many, a petition for expungement is out of reach, since it all but requires the hiring of an attorney for a process that includes attending a hearing. According to Vox.com, in California, about 4,000 people have already petitioned for expungement, a low number in such a populous state. For example, the city of San Francisco has identified almost 8,000 convictions that may be eligible for expungement, and the city of San Diego 4,700. It is estimated that there are tens of thousands of convictions that may be eligible for reduction or expungement. The bill requires that the state’s criminal records from 1975 to 2009 be checked.

Democratic Assemblymember Rob Bonta introduced the bill. A press release from his office says the bill should create “a simpler and expedited pathway for Californians to turn the page and make a fresh start by having certain criminal convictions for cannabis-related offenses removed or reduced from their records.” The new law “will help legally-entitled Californians take advantage of this opportunity to clear their own records by removing barriers and streamlining the process.”

Bonta said that the law “will give people the fresh start to which they are legally entitled and allow them to move on with their lives. The War on Drugs unjustly and disproportionately targeted young people of color for enforcement and prosecution. This is a practical, common sense bill.  These individuals are legally entitled to expungement or reduction and a fresh start. It should be implemented without unnecessary delay or burden.”

Disparate enforcement

According to a fact sheet issued by the Drug Policy Alliance, in 2010 in California, “16.38 percent of people arrested for marijuana possession were black, 41.5 percent were Latino, and only 35.7 percent were white, even though California’s population is only 6.6 percent black, 38.4 percent Latino, and 39 percent white.” A graphic from the sheet shows that for every 10,000 people in Los Angeles, 188 marijuana infractions were issued to black people, 74 to Latinos, and 52 to whites. In Fresno, the rates were 501 for blacks, 219 for Latinos, and 125 for whites.

Other states that have some form of expungement program for marijuana convictions are Colorado, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Oregon. In addition, expungement has been made a key part of legalization proposals in other states, for example New Jersey and New York. In North Dakota, an adult use initiative that will appear on the November ballot would create an automatic expungement process.

What do you think? Will Governor Brown sign the bill or allow it to pass? Should future legalization initiatives include automatic expungement? Leave a comment below.

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About the Author: Eric Howard

Eric Howard, who lives in Los Angeles, is a staff writer for Marijuana and the Law. His most recent book, Taliban Beach Party, appeared in 2017.

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