House Committee Approves Two Bills To Expunge, Seal Pot Records

Bills passed out of House committee on bipartisan vote.

The U.S. House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday advanced two pieces of legislation aimed at providing relief to individuals with marijuana convictions on their records.

NORML reported that the Democratic-led committee “voted in a bipartisan manner to advance the Clean Slate Act and the Fresh Start Act,” both of which seek to redress prior pot busts and arrests.

The Clean Slate Act “establishes a framework for sealing records related to certain federal criminal offenses,” according to the bill’s summary, while requiring the courts to “automatically seal records related to (1) a conviction for simple possession of a controlled substance or for any nonviolent offense involving marijuana, or (2) an arrest for an offense that does not result in a conviction.”

It also states that “an individual who meets certain criteria may petition to seal records related to a conviction for other nonviolent offenses.”

The Fresh Start Act, meanwhile, would authorize “the Department of Justice to award grants for states to implement automatic expungement laws (i.e., laws that provide for the automatic expungement or sealing of an individual’s criminal records).”

According to NORML, the grants would amount to “tens of millions of dollars in federal funding to help states facilitate the automatic expungement of convictions for marijuana violations among other offenses.”

The measures drew support from both Democrats and Republicans on the committee, underscoring the growing bipartisan support for cannabis reform in the United States.

Republican Rep. Guy Reschenthaler of Pennsylvania joined his Democratic colleague, Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware, in sponsoring the Clean Slate Act.

“We need to pass this legislation so those individuals have a chance to fully partake in the economy and also reduce recidivism rates,” Reschenthaler told Pittsburgh public radio station WESA earlier this month.

Reschenthaler’s colleague on the Judiciary Committee, Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, applauded the panel’s approval of the Fresh Start Act.

“Even those who commit non-violent offenses can face a life sentence. That’s because the stigma of a conviction can be permanent, following you around for the rest of your life. Employment, housing, education — the very things necessary to get a ‘fresh start’ — can all be denied on the basis of a conviction in your past. The collateral consequences of conviction in our criminal justice system are far reaching and fall disproportionately on people of color,” Cohen said in a statement on Wednesday.

“Allowing people who have made a mistake, and have paid their debt to society, to wipe the slate clean is essential if we want a more just criminal legal system,” Cohen added.

The two bills are strongly backed by cannabis reform groups like NORML, whose political director, Morgan Fox, said the “need for this kind of legislative assistance is even more pressing considering the racially and economically disparate nature of enforcement over the past half a century.”

“Beyond the actual penalties incurred under law, a simple marijuana possession conviction can also carry with it a host of lifetime collateral consequences. In many cases, it is the modern-day equivalent of the ‘Scarlet Letter’ and it can negatively impact a person’s ability to function and thrive in society,” Fox said in a statement. “At a time when most Americans want to end marijuana prohibition and nearly a majority of people now reside states where cannabis is legal, it makes no sense to continue punishing adults and robbing them of the opportunity to fulfill their potential for behavior that in many cases is no longer a crime.”

“Members of the House have shown a commitment this term to advancing cannabis reform,” added Fox. “They have repeatedly affirmed that the time has come to start repairing the harms caused by prohibition and enact modern, sensible cannabis policies that are supported by a supermajority of voters. The Senate has the opportunity to follow suit by passing substantive legislation that can change peoples’ lives for the better and facilitate immeasurable opportunities — especially in marginalized and unfairly targeted communities — but the time for them to act is quickly running out.”

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