Code for America clears 8,132 marijuana convictions, with more to come

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Code for America clears 8,132 marijuana convictions, with more to come

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Code for America plans to help clear 250,000 marijuana convictions by the end of 2019.
Code for America plans to help clear 250,000 marijuana convictions by the end of 2019.

Image: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

2019%252f01%252f15%252fe4%252f20192f012f142f5a2fphoto.15cf1.d4588.jpg%252f90x90By Nandita Raghuram

Thousands of people can breathe a sigh of relief.

San Francisco has cleared more than 8,000 marijuana convictions with the help of Code for America.

But the work’s not over yet; Code for America plans to help prosecutors across the country void 250,000 convictions by the end of the year. Also, those who’ve already seen their convictions wiped by the San Francisco District Attorney’s office have one more logistical step in the process. 

“I don’t see it as a political thing, but frankly I see it as a matter of dignity,”  San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón explains. “I think this is about humanity, this is about dignity. It’s restoring people to a place where they can be players and partakers in our community.” 

“I think this is about humanity, this is about dignity.”

California’s Proposition 64 — a law passed in 2016 that legalized recreational marijuana use for people 21 and older — opened the door for people with past marijuana convictions to remove them from their records. But the process is filled with cumbersome paperwork and long wait times. Code for America, a nonprofit that seeks to use technology to improve government, used tech to cut through the red tape. The organization developed Clear My Record, a program that quickly and automatically analyzes conviction data in order to help government officials determine which convictions are eligible for dismissal or re-sentencing. 

For Gascón — who says that his major purpose since he began his job as San Francisco’s district attorney was to reform the criminal justice system and reduce incarceration — this project is a highlight of his work. 

He points to the consequences of having a conviction on your record. “Often you cannot get housing (there are many landlords who will not rent to someone who has a criminal conviction especially a felony), there are a lot of employers who may not not hire you if you have a conviction, there are many types of educational loans that you may not qualify for, if you are a parent you may not be able to participate in some of the school activities for your children because you are a convicted individual, especially if you are convicted of a felony, and I could go on and on and on,” he explains. “What we do when we convict someone is that we marginalize them greatly from participating in the rest of our society.”

The individual with the conviction doesn’t need to do anything, and Code for America’s process requires minimal resources from district attorney’s offices. This marks a shift from San Francisco’s previous petition-based, multi-step system, which was often complicated, expensive, and time-consuming. 

Gascón intends to retroactively apply Prop 64 to misdemeanor and felony marijuana convictions from 1975 onwards and subsequently clear thousands of marijuana convictions. For this round of 8,132 reviewed convictions, the next step is sending them through the court system to finalize the process. The court’s work will be minimal, Gascón says. Prior to joining with Code for America, San Francisco had already expunged 1,230 marijuana-related convictions.

SEE ALSO: You won’t be prosecuted for marijuana possession in Baltimore anymore

“Because we’re doing all the work on the front-end and there’s no litigation involved, what happens is we provide the court with a clean list of the people who qualify and all the court has to do is basically go through the [administrative] process of finalizing the expungement or the reduction in sentence,” he explains.  

Aside from San Francisco, Code for America plans to partner with four other counties in California. The organization expects to announce their new partners in the coming weeks. Once these projects are completed, Code for America will use the lessons learned in all five counties to create a blueprint that other counties can then use. 

“Contact with the criminal justice system should not be a life sentence, so we’ve been working to reimagine the record clearance process,” says Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America, in a statement. “This new approach, which is both innovative and common sense, changes the scale and speed of justice and has the potential to ignite change across the country.”

Looking to the future, Gascón wants to see this process utilized elsewhere.

“I want to continue to evangelize, if you will, to get others around the country and the state to do the same things and push the envelope to continue to reduce the impacts of criminal convictions when we can,” he says.

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