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May 23, 2017

Tales of marijuana reform as sentencing reform from California after Prop 64

This recent AP article, headlined "California’s legal pot law helps reduce, erase convictions," serves as a reminder and reinforcement of my tendency to look at marijuana reform as often a kind of sentencing reform. The AP article reports on some interesting case-processing realities in the wake of new provisions in California law created by the state's 2016 marijuana legalization initiative, Prop 64. Here are some details:

Jay Schlauch’s conviction for peddling pot haunted him for nearly a quarter century. The felony prevented him from landing jobs, gave his wife doubts about tying the knot and cast a shadow over his typically sunny outlook on life.

So when an opportunity arose to reduce his record to a misdemeanor under the voter-approved law that legalized recreational marijuana last year, Schlauch wasted little time getting to court. “Why should I be lumped in with, you know, murderers and rapists and people who really deserve to get a felony?” he asked.

This lesser-known provision of Proposition 64 allows some convicts to wipe their rap sheets clean and offers hope for people with past convictions who are seeking work or loans. Past crimes can also pose a deportation threat for some convicts.

It’s hard to say how many people have benefited, but more than 2,500 requests were filed to reduce convictions or sentences, according to partial state figures reported through March. The figures do not yet include data from more than half of counties from the first quarter of the year. While the state does not tally the outcomes of those requests, prosecutors said they have not fought most petitions.

Marijuana legalization advocates, such as the Drug Policy Alliance, have held free legal clinics to help convicts get their records changed. Lawyers who specialize in pot defense have noted a steady flow of interest from new and former clients.

Attorney Bruce Margolin said he got two to three cases a week, many of them decades old.... Since the passage of Proposition 64, he’s gotten convicts out of prison, spared others time behind bars and successfully knocked felonies down to misdemeanors.

But he’s also encountered a lot of confusion about the law that went into effect immediately in November. “They were totally unprepared,” he said of judges and prosecutors in courts he’s appeared in throughout the state. “It’s amazing. You would have thought they should have had seminars to get them up to speed so we don’t have to go through the process of arguing things that are obvious, but we’re still getting that.”

That has not been the case in San Diego, where prosecutors watched polls trending in favor of marijuana legalization and moved proactively to prevent chaos, said Rachel Solov, chief of the collaborative courts division of the district attorney’s office. They learned lessons from the 2014 passage of Proposition 47, which reduced several nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors.

Prosecutors in the county researched which convicts serving time or probation were eligible for sentence reductions and notified the public defender’s office so they could quickly get into court. Many were freed immediately, Solov said. “Whether we agree with the law or not, our job is to enforce it,” Solov said. “It’s the right thing to do. If someone’s in custody and they shouldn’t be in custody anymore, we have an obligation to address that.”

San Diego County led the state with the most number of petitions reported in the first two months after the law was passed. It has reduced sentences or convictions in nearly 400 cases, Solov said.

In Mendocino County, where pot farming is big business and violent crimes are often tied to the crop, District Attorney C. David Eyster said he fights any case not eligible for a reduction, such as applicants with a major felony in their past, a sex offense or two previous convictions for the same crime.

May 23, 2017 at 09:09 AM | Permalink


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