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June 12, 2018

"Possession's not enough: Expunge all weed convictions"

Legal Marijuana Oregon Measure 91The title of this post is the headline of this recent editorial from the Newark Star-Ledger.  Regular readers likely know I take a shine to this opinion piece because of my recent work on a recent article, "Leveraging Marijuana Reform to Enhance Expungement Practices,"  which call for jurisdictions to take an expansive approach to expungement when moving forward with marijuana prohibition reforms.  Here are excerpts from the editorial:

Even as New Jersey is poised to legalize marijuana, the cops are still arresting tens of thousands of people annually, mostly minorities, just for having a little pot. Many can't find work because of the stigma.

Jo Anne Zito was rejected for a job at Godiva chocolates because of a low-level marijuana possession charge, she told lawmakers last week. So, as we contemplate legalizing recreational weed, we need to ask: Does it make sense that people like her still won't be able TO get work at a candy store?

No. We can't legalize marijuana, yet continue to force them to "walk around with a scarlet letter," as Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union) put it. The answer is expungement. But the current debate is far too limited.

Quijano introduced a bill to allow those caught with a little pot to apply to have their records cleared; advocates argue they shouldn't have to initiate that onerous process, the state should do it automatically. None of this goes far enough.

We need to think big. We need to admit this was a mistake in the first place, and that a lot of decent people were caught up in the dragnet. So, sparing only those who possessed small amounts is really just a first step.

We need to expunge the records of those caught with more than just a little pot. And we need to expunge the records of low-level dealers as well, if a judge approves, as long as they didn't commit more serious crimes like selling to minors, carrying guns, or committing acts of violence.

Aside from cleaning these records, we need to release those currently imprisoned on such charges. Does it make sense to hold thousands of people behind bars for selling weed, while the government allows sales outside the prison walls?...

All states that have legalized pot have only done so for certain amounts. Anyone arrested for possessing more gets a ticket, rather than a criminal charge. Yet if our expungement policy is modeled to match, those previously charged with having any more pot can't get that wiped from their records. They will continue to be barred from employment, even as people who buy heaps of it after legalization are merely ticketed. That needs to be fixed. Expunging high-level dealing charges is likely impossible, for political reasons. But we should at least include intent to sell and lower level distribution and growing charges.

Granted, this is not without risk. A guy who pled down to a marijuana charge from money-laundering, for example, shouldn't get out of doing his time, or a criminal record. But we could include prosecutorial review, as a bill moving through California's legislature would. It requires the state to automatically dismiss any old marijuana charges, yet prosecutors would sift through the higher-level cases and contest them if necessary. California already allows many past pot charges to be dismissed or reduced based on a defendant's petition, although they might still surface if you apply for a government job.

Yes, it's a huge undertaking to expunge all these convictions retroactively, especially if our state does so without requiring a petition. But we derailed hundreds of thousands of lives with needless marijuana prosecutions, and nobody helped those people get jobs or find housing. Now we are saying it never should have happened. So let the state overcome the logistical hurdles, too.

Actually, with a little bit of advanced planning and the right infrastructure, it does not necessarily have to be a "huge undertaking" to expunge past marijuana convictions. Indeed, as noted in this post over at my marijuana blog, "Code for America helping with technology to enhance marijuana offense expungement efforts in California pilot program," private players are willing to help in various ways with this effort.

I have blogged a lot about this issue over at my Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform blog, and here is just a sampling of some recent postings:

June 12, 2018 at 11:17 AM | Permalink

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