It's not news that pot legalization in California also means that those who've been found guilty of cannabis felonies and misdemeanors can now reduce or expunge their convictions. Despite this opportunity, however, relatively few people have taken advantage of it to clean up their criminal records.
So far, fewer than an estimated 5,000 people statewide have petitioned the courts for relief. Meanwhile, nearly a million people could be eligible, according to Eunisses Hernandez, policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance.
Assembly Bill 1793 could remedy this discrepancy altogether by automatically expunging certain cannabis convictions without a petition. The bill has unanimous backing from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, who have stated their support in the fight to end disproportionate criminalization of people of color and those from lower-income communities.
“Thousands of eligible people around the state may be unaware of the opportunity to erase cannabis-related convictions and start anew,” says Supervisor Hilda Solis. “The War on Drugs primarily hinders communities of color, and our goal at the county is to give people second chances and remove barriers to employment and a productive and happy life.”
As of last week, AB 1793 had made it out of the state Assembly Appropriations Committee and is now on the Assembly floor, though there is no specified date as to when it will be brought up for a vote.
That means those convicted of previous marijuana crimes, for the time being, will still have to resort to one of three options: petition the courts on their own, hire a lawyer do it for them, or get help from an expungement clinic.
Attorney Mike Donaldson, who's worked on record clearing or reductions, says fewer clients have been coming to him lately, as if the enthusiasm has died down. “I know if I had a felony sitting on my record for X amount of years for some BS cultivation charge, I'd want to get that off as soon as possible,” he says. For many people, the smear on their criminal records is an obstacle in pursuing education, employment or even housing opportunities. Not to mention, Donaldson adds, the process is fairly easy:
File a motion and request a hearing date before a judge, which can all happen within 15 to 30 days of filing, though it can take a bit longer for the Department of Justice to officially update someone's record. If you're working with a lawyer, the cost can range between $500 and $2,000, though if you go through a clinic or the California Judicial Council's self-help form, you can do it for free.
“Very few people know about the re-sentencing provisions under Proposition 64, and few people have access to free legal services,” Hernandez says. The Drug Policy Alliance is one of several entities, along with UFCW Local 770 and Legal Aid Foundation of L.A., offering expungement fairs in California and the L.A. area, where there's at least one happening every week.
The expungement fairs offer a number of legal services, in addition to Proposition 64 reductions. Some go for traffic relief or Proposition 47 felony reductions or expungements. (Under Proposition 47, which passed in 2014, nonviolent property crimes in which the value is less than $950, as well as simple drug possession offenses, can be reduced to misdemeanors.)
In L.A. County, about 530 people have applied for Proposition 64 relief, which is close to nothing, says Hernandez, when the county is home to more than 40,000 felony convictions. “It's alarming there hasn't been that infrastructure to educate people on these provisions,” she says. There hasn't been as much investment in this piece of education as there has been in other campaigns, such as preventing youth from smoking, she adds, but that doesn't mean it's less important.
“Removing or reducing felonies or misdemeanors helps remove those barriers that keep people disenfranchised once they've been impacted by the criminal justice system and, in particular, marijuana convictions in the War on Drugs,” Hernandez says.
While there's little controversy over AB 1793, Hernandez notes that if it fails in the state Legislature, it will be up to localities to automate record reductions and expungements on their own. That would fall into the hands of district attorneys throughout the state. Though jurisdictions like San Francisco have already moved forward in relief, district attorney Jackie Lacey has yet to make such a bold move for L.A.
But if AB 1793 does make it through the Legislature, then it won't matter what individual DAs decide for their own jurisdictions. Rather, it will be up to the state to figure out how to fund the infrastructure to allow these automated reductions to happen as swiftly as possible.
“It takes away the barriers that already exist like court closures, so [those convicted of marijuana crimes] don't have to navigate the criminal justice system,” Hernandez says. “It would have such a tremendous impact on Californians and Angelenos in particular, it's pretty incredible.”