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LA County Prosecutors Teams Up With Tech Group to Clear 66,000 Cannabis Convictions

Los Angeles prosecutors and a tech nonprofit are working together to amend the harms caused by the war on drugs.

Legal Marijuana and Restorative Justice
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The lead prosecutor for Los Angeles County announced on Thursday that her office had teamed with a nonprofit tech group to clear 66,000 past marijuana convictions, some going back as long as six decades. Earlier this week, District Attorney Jackie Lacey filed a motion to erase 66,000 felony convictions going back to 1961 and another 4,000 convictions for misdemeanor offenses from 10 cities in Los Angeles County.

The motion was signed by Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta on Tuesday. With the judge’s order, approximately 22,000 offenders will no longer have a felony on the records. Another 15,000 will no longer have any criminal record at all.

“The dismissal of tens of thousands of old cannabis-related convictions in Los Angeles County will bring much-needed relief to communities of color that disproportionately suffered the unjust consequences of our nation’s drug laws,” Lacey said in a statement.

In total, 53,000 people had convictions cleared from their records. Of those, 45% are Latino, 32% are Black, and 20% are white. The district attorney’s office determined that an additional 2,142 convictions identified for possible relief were not eligible because of the offenders’ other criminal convictions.

Rectifying Racial Bias

Lacey said the expungement of criminal records helps to rectify the racial inequities prevalent in the enforcement of the nation’s drug laws. In 2016, a study found that while African Americans make up just 6% of the state’s population, nearly a quarter of those serving time in California prisons exclusively for marijuana offenses are Black.

“What this does is correct that inequity of the past,” Lacey said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “It gives them a start, a new start.”

Under a law passed in 2018, prosecutors throughout the state were directed to proactively expunge convictions for many offenses no longer illegal and reduce many others from felonies to misdemeanors. Prosecutors have until July of this year to comply with the law.

In order to fulfill this obligation, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office collaborated with the nonprofit tech group Code for America to identify convictions eligible for relief. The group created an algorithm that combs through past records of convictions to identify eligible cases and automatically creates the necessary legal documents to file with the court.

Code for America has shared the algorithm with all 58 district attorneys in California. With this week’s action, the algorithm has assisted in the dismissal of 85,000 past convictions in five counties.

Evonne Silva, Code for America’s Senior Program Director of Criminal Justice, said that the 66,000 convictions cleared in Los Angeles County are an example of the role tech can play in criminal justice reform.

“This is a clear demonstration that automatic record clearance is possible at scale and can help to right the wrongs of the failed war on drugs,” she said.

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