Compared with some of its regional neighbors, Delaware isn’t making rapid strides toward legalizing adult-use cannabis. But it has taken significant steps toward decriminalizing possession and use. Earlier this year, we reported on the bi-partisan effort led by the Delaware Assembly to clear past minor marijuana convictions. And on Wednesday, Governor John Carney signed SB 197 into law, providing mandatory expungement eligibility for most minor marijuana charges between 1977 and 2015, the year Delaware decriminalized possession and use up to an ounce.
New Law Provides Mandatory Expungement Eligibility for Most Marijuana Convictions
When Delaware Gov. John Carney took over for Jack Markell in 2017, he picked up exactly where his predecessor left off on criminal justice reform. Over the past few years, Delaware has implemented a number of criminal legal reforms, including reforming mandatory minimums, re-enfranchising people with felony convictions and participating in a National Criminal Justice Reform Project.
So when it came to decriminalizing cannabis, Delaware was already focusing on improving its criminal legal system. For lawmakers, criminal record expungement for prior cannabis convictions seemed like an obvious course of action. And legislation to provide mandatory expungement eligibility easily passed the state legislature. This week, it became law.
Commenting on the bill’s signing, sponsoring Senator and Minority Whip Gregory F. Lavelle (R) framed the law as “an issue of fairness” and of equity. Lavelle noted that the Senate had worked on a number of other expungement measures over the preceding years.
What Delaware’s Expungement Bill Means for People With Prior Convictions
Not everyone with past cannabis convictions will be eligible for expungement, however. Only those who have no other charges on their record, and whose cannabis offense was simple possession or use under one ounce, can apply. Anyone with a violent drug conviction is ineligible for expungement.
Furthermore, expungement won’t be automatic. Eligible individuals will have to file an official request for their records, obtain them, then fill out and file an application for expungement with the State Bureau of Identification. As long as the applicant is eligible, they’ll receive a mandatory expungement. Delaware’s official expungement guide says a filing fee is required for each form, but does not specify the amount.
State officials expect between 500 to 700 individuals to apply for the expungement. But over 1,000 Delaware residents could be eligible, based on conviction records.
Minor marijuana convictions, even from decades ago, can come with major, long-term consequences. They make it harder to find employment, secure loans and housing and can even affect child custody decisions. Clearing such convictions from someone’s record can significantly improve their life prospects.
Yet in states with legal cannabis, expungement policies are less common than one might think. Massachusetts, Oregon, Maryland and Rhode Island have all enacted some kind of post-legalization expungement law. Elsewhere, including California, the U.S.’s largest legal cannabis market, expungement is awaiting executive approval, or not on the table at all.
This year, the Center for American Progress published a poll showing that 70 percent of Americans across party lines support “clean slate” legislation for nonviolent felony offenders who’ve completed their sentence and committed no other crimes.
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