Proposition 64, the California ballot initiative that sought to legalize recreational use of marijuana back in November 2016, may just be the answer users looking to clear their records of offenses dished out years ago are looking for. Under a provision of the law, many people with marijuana convictions can apply to clear the slate by having their convictions reduced to lesser offenses or expunged altogether.
The legal clinic at Chuco’s Justice Center in the center of Inglewood, California, which borders the Los Angeles International Airport is staffed by the nonprofit, Drug Policy Alliance, volunteers willing to help those who need assistance clearing their records — especially those in the United States with a green card who need the offenses to be removed so they have less of a chance of getting deported or to pursue citizenship. So far, at least 2,660 petitions have been filed to reduce or eliminate pot-related offenses since the proposition passed. At the center, individuals receive legal assistance, including consultations with paralegals and attorneys, court records checks, and live scan fingerprinting to obtain criminal records from other counties.
Twenty-nine states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Guam have legalized medical marijuana, and eight states plus D.C. have sanctioned recreational use. However, no state goes as far as California in working with offenders to clear their records.
California’s Proposition 64, also known as The Adult Use of Marijuana Act, “gives people the opportunity to recreate themselves and become people instead of statistics,” said Nick Stewart-Oaten, a deputy public defender for Los Angeles County. The proposition made it legal for homeowners to possess and grow small amounts of cannabis, brought some pot-related felonies down to misdemeanors and some misdemeanors down to infractions, and reduced or dismissed prior convictions. Proposition 64 was actually built on a 2014 law known as Proposition 47, which allowed for the reduction of some nonviolent felonies, including theft and some drug charges, to misdemeanors.
San Diego’s Deputy District Attorney Rachel Solov said her office used their case management system to identify hundreds of eligible people serving a sentence or who were on probation or supervision and then provided their names to the local public defender’s office so that they could begin proactively filing petitions for these individuals. “Our primary concern was getting people out of custody who were in custody and shouldn’t be,” Solov said.
So far, the office of Deputy Public Defender Ellen McDonnell in Contra Costa County has filed about eighty petitions, mostly for reclassification of prior, dated convictions. The office is now engaged in “aggressive community outreach” in the hopes of finding more people, according to McDonnell.
However, in some areas, funding continues to be an issue. Alameda County Deputy Public Defender Sue Ra said her office hasn’t received any additional funding for post-conviction relief services, a major setback in the process. “Somebody needs to do this work, and the public defenders are on the ground actually doing it,” Ra said. “It would be nice to get the support to allow us the resources to complete work quickly so that our clients don’t miss out on employment and other opportunities.”
Will more states follow California’s lead? Maybe, yet many say don’t count on it.
“It’s a [tough] sell to say, you know what, these people flouted these rules…and we ought to wipe those records clean,” said Mikos, an expert on marijuana law. Only time will tell.