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Criminal expungement and cannabis tax dollars: Sacramento’s Youth Forward puts children first

Nov 14, 2018

Earlier this year California passed a law which added language to the Health and Safety Code, expedites the identification, review, and notification of individuals who might be eligible for the dismissal, dismissal, and sealing, or redesignation of specified cannabis-related convictions. It’s a small, but a significant first step in addressing America’s decades-old war on drugs.

While the law is a crucial opportunity for those with cannabis convictions on their records, critics argue that it’s not without its issues. With the number of cannabis convictions in the state, the expungement of records is going to be a long and arduous process for California courts.

Youth Forward, a Sacramento organization, dedicated to supporting African-American and Latinx youth through education and community action is currently focused on the impact of marijuana legalization on children and families in Sacramento. The war on drugs that devastated minority communities has now become a driver of great wealth for a privileged few. Youth Forward’s position is that some of that new wealth should be reinvested into communities hit hardest by cannabis criminalization.

Nia MooreWeathers, the Community Organizer for Youth Forward, works to ensure that Sacramento’s most at-risk children and citizens are being heard in California’s capital city. The war on drugs turned generations of underprivileged youth from communities of color into political pawns for the prison-industrial complex. As the cannabis trade moves from the back streets to Wall Street, MooreWeathers and the rest of Youth Forward are helping to embrace a new future by making sure the faces of the past are not forgotten.

We spoke with Nia MooreWeathers to learn more about the program, as well as the problems facing today’s youth, and the promise that comes from lifting the veil of cannabis convictions.

Nia MooreWeathers/ Source: Youth Forward

Would you tell us a bit about your background and how it fits into your current role at Youth Forward?

I’m a graduate of Humboldt State University, where I graduated with a B.A. in Biological Anthropology. That background is surprisingly helpful in the work that I do as a Community Organizer. I have to go out into human society, collect information, and change systems, that’s what my Anthropology degree was about.

Youth Forward is a community-based organization, so we spend a lot of our time meeting with other individuals and organizations working on similar issues that deal with children’s welfare. For example, we work with Sacramento Kids First to continue with the idea for creating a permanent funding stream for children.

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The Sacramento [city] budget only delegates 1 percent to children services, which is disappointing compared to the amount of money we spend on city jobs and pensions. I thought that that was confusing when I began to look for this info and collect data, something about that seems wrong. If our kids are our future, we should be investing it.

We are tackling [criminal record] expungement right now [at Youth Forward]. The ability for someone to get their record clear, this is a necessary thing for a lot of people. When you’re criminalized, meaning that you have a criminal record, it’s difficult to find a job, to find housing. The housing industry and the housing availability that we have in Sacramento is a problem. If someone is struggling to find a job, due to a criminal record, they’re going to struggle to find housing.

For our readers that don’t know, talk about what it means to tackle something as big as expunging cannabis convictions.

The first step was to research. Research what other people, other cities, are doing about expungement. To find out what our expungement process even is! This summer, I went down to city hall, talked to a few offices, picked up a few forms that I was told were expungement forms, turns out that they weren’t. Youth Forward met with the local D.A. and A.D.A. to try and find out more. We had even sent the D.A. a letter saying that we would like to see the expungement process in action.

One of the issues is access to a person’s criminal record. A local D.A. only has direct access to eligible criminal records, meaning local convictions. If they have to access all of [a person’s] criminal records when the D.A. goes to expunge a record, they have to request access to non-local records.

So how do local organizations access these records? What’s the process? AB 1793 forces the Department of Justice to release cannabis-related criminal records, and it forces the city and county D.A. offices to act on those records once they get them. If it had just been a ‘here’s the info,’ type of bill, it wouldn’t be as effective.

Do you think that AB 1793 will help speed up the expungement process?

Having the 1.5-year accountability [for local D.A.’s] is what’s really the good-get in terms of the law passing. That’s another important thing too about there being an awareness issue. That falls on the city and the community to provide awareness that expungement is an option for people with cannabis convictions.

People just don’t know that it’s an option, that was a big thing when we met with the D.A.’s office. We asked if there could be a public service announcement about [the expungement process].

There’s a stigma around this; marijuana is a racialized issue. The drug was criminalized because of rich, white Evangelicals in this country that felt threatened by immigration of people of color, Jim Crow laws in the South. The drug itself is just a racialized thing at this point, and it’s important to acknowledge that.

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When we think about this, we need to think about how it affected the Black and Hispanic community. From 2012-2016 African Americans made up 44 percent of drug-related arrests in Sacramento, and they only made up 15 percent of the population at that time.

While the D.A. has been working on expungement, there hasn’t been an acknowledgment of [that work], and we are shooting to have a press conference on National Expungement Week, which is October 20 through the 27. Youth Forward is trying to get awareness out there.

So then, I’m curious, what are some examples of a successful expungement program?

San Francisco had already begun an expungement process. They were dealing specifically with Prop 64 expungements, and they had already cleared 3,000 cases of 9,000. This was back in March, and it was already June when [Youth Forward representatives] met with the Sacramento D.A., and we had only cleared 300 expungement cases.

That wasn’t enough in comparison to what other [cities] had done. In a place only two hours away from Sacramento! We were looking into what the barriers were, what’s stopping the expungement process. We found that it was time and resources. Even access to records is an issue.

Trying to track down all of those criminal records has to be difficult. Does Youth Forward have any recommendations as to how D.A.’s can access this information more readily?

We looked around for software that would expedite this process, and what I came across was Code for America. Code for America automates the expungement process online and does it for free.

The existing process we have is timely and can cost anywhere from $3,000-$5,000 depending on how complicated your case is. If it’s a small citation, you would just go down to city hall and apply. You can apply for a fee waiver, but if you have multiple charges, in multiple counties, [the local D.A. will] have to go to those counties, and collect those records. Then you, the person with the conviction that is, will need to petition, fill out the form, and go through the expungement process.

The D.A.’s website has the form for free; it’s fairly simple to fill out. You may or may not need legal assistance, you can go to the Public Defender’s office, and they can help you. I’m trying to talk to anyone and everyone, it’s not that we have something that doesn’t work. It’s slow, but it’s functional. It works. It’s been successful for the 310 people in Sacramento who have applied so far. It’s trying to get the word out to the people.

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Code for America was going to choose three-to-five counties to work with to run this program in California. They want to clear 250,000 records in those three counties by 2019, and we have close to 1.4 million marijuana-specific records in California that need to be cleared. Their goal is close to a quarter of that. It was imperative that we be one of those counties. They were looking for a diverse county and a cooperative D.A.’s office. We were selected!

Then we found out AB 1793 passed in late September. There is momentum for expungement, but we want to get the ball moving faster.

With the election season now over, what will Youth Forward be working on next?

Youth Forward is getting ready for the Signature Gathering for our Sacramento Kids First ballot measure; it’s an issue that we’re trying to get on the ballot. That work starts on November 10, after that, we have six months to collect 55,0000 signatures from the city of Sacramento from registered voters.  

We’re also in support of Measure U –  [which would renew the existing Measure U]. Measure U is going to fill the budget hole. If there is that hole, if Measure U isn’t renewed, the possibility of the Sacramento Kids First program being able to happen is low. We’re waiting to see the voter turnout on that. That will inform us of the work level that we can expect after November.

Sacramento Kids First is a great opportunity to make sure that marijuana tax money gets back to the kids, after-school care, foster youth, career training for juvenile criminal institutions. The way that the money will get doled out, with the Sacramento Kids First fund, nonprofits will have to apply for the money grant style.

What’s unique about Sacramento Kids First is that the board that will decide if those organizations get money will be made up of adults and the actual kids themselves. It’s for youth by youth, not for youth by an adult which is great. If the fund passes, it will increase funds every year. It’s only going to increase the amount of money; we’re really going to be doing a lot of work around that come November!

What else can our readers do to help, or to learn more about the cause?

Go to the Sacramento Kids First Coalition Facebook page if you would like more information [about that program], especially if they’re involved with children at all. You could be a parent, a teacher, community figure, anyone! It’s imperative that we get [Measure U and the Sacramento Kids First Coalition] passed through if we want to make sure that children are a priority because right now they are not. I would like to see this changed, and if you want to see it changed, sign up! We’re looking for volunteers, and we’re looking for signees. Come one, come all!

If you’re in the marijuana world or would like information about expungement, you can contact Youth Forward directly, and you can ask for me, specifically. Reach out to the D.A.’s office, the Public Defender’s office, start calling. Light ‘em up with phone calls! Call the D.A. especially to let them know that [expungement] is a priority. If you’re interested in decriminalization and expungement efforts, make a phone call, encourage people to look into Code for America.

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For people not in Sacramento, look into the work that your city is doing around expungement. Contact the California Department of Public Advocacy – they have a lot of information regarding expungement. Youth Forward is having a press conference [later this week] in the breezeway in front of Sacramento City Hall; we are expecting to report on some of the work that has been done around automatic expungement. I will be speaking; public officials will be speaking, it’s all about reaching out and getting the information out there!

We need to invest more in our children, so which kids? Another issue that Youth Forward deals with is racial equity. All kids need access to a good education, safe spaces. Not all kids have to deal with knowing where their next meal is coming if they have a safe place to sleep at night.

Making sure that kids have access to education and aren’t being subjected to the school to prison pipeline, which is more prevalent in communities of color and low income. We’re working with the local government and community organizations, other organizations doing similar work. That’s what we spend a lot of time working on, coordinating and working with other organizations.

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