SAN FRANCISCO — More than 8,000 marijuana-related convictions were erased or reduced using a technological approach that prosecutors nationwide should adopt to address a growing backlog of criminal cases eligible for modification, San Francisco's district attorney announced Feb. 25, 2019.
San Francisco is the first California county to announce full compliance with the state's broad legalization of cannabis that also made an estimated 200,000 past marijuana convictions eligible for erasure or reduction.
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon credited the nonprofit technology organization Code for America for solving the biggest hurdle to identifying eligible cases dating back decades.
When California voters passed Proposition 64 in 2016 to allow adult-use marijuana, they also eliminated several cannabis-related crimes. The proposition also applied retroactively, but provided no mechanism or guidance on how those eligible could erase their convictions or have felonies reduced to misdemeanors.
A few hundred people hired attorneys, paid court fees and filed petitions to modify their records since November 2016, but the vast majority of convictions still remain untouched. Many district attorneys throughout the state said they lack the resources to sift through and review decades' worth of criminal cases to identify eligible convictions.
In January 2018, Gascon announced his office would take on the time-consuming task of sifting through many thousands of criminal cases to identify eligible marijuana convictions. Until then, only 23 people who hired lawyers and paid court fees took advantage of the new law in San Francisco.
In May 2018, when Gascon announced a partnership with Code for America, his office managed to identify and dismiss a little more than 1,000 eligible misdemeanor cases. Since then, an additional 8,132 cases have been identified. Gascon said a total of 9,300 cases dating to 1975 will be dropped or reduced without cost, active participation and, in many cases, the knowledge of the defendants.
"We don't have to do it,” Gascon said Feb. 25. “It was just a matter of dignity.”
Code for America is a San Francisco-based nonprofit group that seeks to use technology to make government more efficient. Director Jennifer Pahlka said coders developed a “lightweight” and simple computer-based algorithm dubbed “Clear My Record” to quickly identify eligible cases. The program automatically fills out forms to be filed with the courts.
Pahlka said Feb. 25 that Code for America was working with several other California district attorneys to identify eligible marijuana cases in their counties.
In December 2018, Michigan became the latest state to broadly legalize marijuana, eliminate marijuana-related crimes and allow past convictions to be erased or reduced. Meanwhile, prosecutors in Baltimore, Seattle, Chicago and other cities across the U.S. followed Gascon's lead and announced their intentions to clear eligible marijuana convictions in their jurisdictions.
Gascon and Pahlka called on prosecutors across the country to adopt Code for America's technology.
“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 said.
-- Paul Elias
Featured Image: As part of California's legalization of adult-use marijuana, Proposition 64 also provided a stipulation to clear marijuana-related convictions. It's a daunting task — about 200,000 Californians would be eligible for expungement. San Francisco sped up the clearings by working with nonprofit group Code for America. (Associated Press file photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)