California DAs meet July 1 deadline to clear hundreds of thousands of cannabis convictions

Jul 3, 2020

According to a report in the Ocean County Register, local counties in Southern California cleared nearly 200,000 cannabis convictions, meeting a July 1 deadline set in place by Proposition 64, the 2016 measure that legalized cannabis. The state’s 58 county district attorneys agreed with the bulk of the recommendations laid out before them, relieving tens of thousands of Californians of criminal records. Some had carried with them for years.

The move is seen by many as a big win for criminal justice reform, especially for many people of color who are disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs. Removing these criminal records now means that these people can, in many instances, obtain a job or a house, or in some cases, not have to worry about deportation if they are an immigrant.

According to the Register, DAs in Southern California were responsible for nearly half of the cleared records, with some counties finding more eligible cases than what was initially flagged by the state. For example, the Register noted that Riverside County dealt with over 24,000 cases, four times as many as originally suggested by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

Some counties went ahead without challenging any of the cases. In Riverside and San Bernardino, for example, DAs asked that the cases be dismissed altogether.

“They just wanted to process them and comply,” Christopher Gardner, public defender for San Bernardino County, told the Register. “I think it’s a good sign that they recognized what’s important to fight.”

However, others were not so compliant. Los Angeles and Orange Counties challenged a combined 2000 cases, citing prior convictions as reasons for not wanting to dismiss. In Los Angeles, the DA stopped another 2300 cases from proceeding, arguing that they don’t qualify under the law.

“Drug-related offenses have consequences that are sometimes far more severe than other convictions — immigration being one of them,” Nick Stewart-Oaten, an attorney with the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office, told the Register. “That’s why it’s incredibly important for everyone who has a chance to get his record cleaned up to get it cleaned up.”

Initially, Proposition 64 required defendants to go through the burdensome process of having to request that their records be expunged themselves. However, only 3 percent of eligible people had done so after a few years, leaving many, especially minorities who are most harmed by the drug war, still suffering from the consequences. Soon, a push began to expunge these records en masse.

In January 2018, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón became the first DA in California to do just that. He was soon followed by DAs in San Diego, Alameda, Sonoma, Yolo, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Joaquin counties. Finally, the legislature approved Assembly Bill 1793, which gave the state until July 1, 2019, to identify eligible cases and then gave local DAs until July 1, 2020, to approve or deny.

The process isn’t a smooth one, however, as even if charges are dropped, or a case is dismissed, a person could still sit in jail until the system updates itself. According to the Register, cannabis advocates are pushing for transparency and are ready to mount court challenges should anything go wrong.

“We have always seen marijuana reform as part of the greater social justice movement,” said Ellen Komp of NORML in an interview with the Register. “It’s a wonderful time to really address the racial justice issues our whole country is looking at so strongly as we fight for the soul of our country.”

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