Los Angeles County drops 60K marijuana convictions, hopes to set trend

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  • The latest overturned convictions are in addition to roughly 66,000 identified in 2020 by District Attorney George Gascón’s predecessor.
  • Prop 64 became law in California in 2016, legalizing recreational marijuana in the country’s most populous state.
  • Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational marijuana.

This week, Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón’s office announced it is dismissing nearly 60,000 marijuana-related convictions from before California voted to legalize the drug.

The country’s largest prosecutor’s office and advocates are calling on other jurisdictions to do the same and remove convictions they say can create barriers for people to participate in today’s society.

“If you have a felony conviction, you generally cannot participate in after-school programs with your kids,” Gascón told USA TODAY. “The level of restrictions is very significant. Many landlords will not rent you a home. Many employers are not going to hire you.”

The convictions being overturned are in addition to roughly 66,000 identified in 2020 by Gascón’s predecessor, Jackie Lacey, following the passage of Proposition 64 in 2016 that legalized recreational cannabis in the nation’s most populous state. An assembly bill last year tasked prosecutors with reviewing past convictions.

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The tens of thousands of convictions cleared this week were missed in the initial sweep that relied on records from the California Department Justice, said Felicia Carbajal, executive director of the Social Impact Center, which partnered with Gascón’s office to review county court records.

And, she said, there are likely many more past convictions yet to be identified. 

It’s a national issue. In Arizona, advocates are criticizing low numbers and, in New Jersey, courts are trying to spread awareness so people check their records to see if they are eligible for past cannabis convictions to be overturned.

“We need to create groundswell with everyday people checking in, getting their rap sheet, making sure that they in fact aren’t just relying on government agencies saying, ‘Hey, we expunged your record,'” Carbajal told USA TODAY. “Because the reality is, it might have fallen by the wayside for a number of reasons.”

Prop 64 became law in California in 2016, legalizing recreational cannabis

After California’s legalization of cannabis, many people with prior felony convictions were eligible for reduced convictions – including Ingrid Archie of Los Angeles, one of the first in the state to file a petition after Prop 64 became law.

Archie, now 40, told USA TODAY she was convicted of felonies including marijuana possession in her early 20s, and she missed out on job opportunities because of it. Now, Archie hopes her experience will serve as an example to other people affected by such convictions.

“I want to be able to show my community that, ‘Look, I know her, and I know that if she did it, that I can go and apply for it.’ And people will go through the necessary steps to get their record clean,” Archie said.

“This is so important that we found all of these people who are in desperate need of removing the noose around their neck. And when I say ‘noose,’ I mean, the barriers that are created when a person cannot get a job, when a person cannot find housing, when a person cannot get the necessary resources that they need because of the barriers that are created by archaic laws that target poor people from our community,” Archie said during a press conference Monday.

The records, dating back about three decades, will be fully sealed, Gascón said. The announcement comes during Week of Action and Awareness, formerly known as National Expungement Week.

Arizona, New York among states working to expunge prior convictions 

Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational marijuana. Gascón and Carbajal told USA TODAY they hope other jurisdictions will open up conversations about how to make right the harm done to people with prior convictions for actions that are now legal.

“One of the things that we need to focus on nationally as we move further and further and see more states creating regulated markets, is to have these conversations about the impacts on communities that have been left out of the out of the conversation,” said Carbajal of the Social Impact Center, a nonprofit that works as a bridge between government, grassroots organizations and underserved communities.

She said she hopes Los Angeles and other places will ensure different departments communicate with each other in order to find all eligible prior convictions, that the process will become streamlined using technology and that jurisdictions will hire third-party auditors for accountability.

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“What are they going to do to double-check it?” Carbajal asked.

In New York, where the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act decriminalized marijuana, past conviction records are eligible for expungement, and the state has two years to find all of them and complete expungement.

That’s not fast enough for many New Yorkers whose lives continue to be impacted by their records. 

State Sen. Jeremy Cooney partnered with advocacy groups including Just Case, Law NY, Legal Aid Society and others to host a community-focused marijuana record expungement clinic earlier this month so residents who have concerns about their records could speak to legal experts to potentially expedite the process of expungement.

As in Los Angeles, courts in New York will not necessarily automatically notify people if they’ve had their records expunged, so anyone with a potential prior conviction must take steps to find out for themselves, The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, part of the USA TODAY Network, reported.

In Arizona, Proposition 207 legalized the use and possession of cannabis, but hundreds of thousands of those eligible to remove prior convictions haven’t filed a petition for expungement yet.

In Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and is the nation’s fourth most populous, more than 3,600 petitions for expungement of marijuana convictions have been granted since they became available in July. Maricopa County Superior Court said there are an average of 506 petitions filed each week, The Arizona Republic of the USA TODAY Networkreported.

Since July, when New Jersey also enacted its expungement efforts, the state has expunged more than 362,000 cannabis convictions, WHYY reported. Now, New Jersey courts are seeking to raise further awareness.

“We welcome every victory that removes barriers for our communities. We recognize the ongoing work to ensure that the courts complete this process,” Carbajal said at the press conference. “We hope this serves as an inspiration to other cities and community leaders throughout the nation who dare to question, to truly explore and push for pathways to justice.”

Contributing: Christal Hayes, USA TODAY; Isabella Martillaro, The Arizona Republic; Adria R. Walker, The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle; The Associated Press

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