On Monday, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón announced that his office would be taking on more than 9,300 cannabis related cases, expunging them from people’s criminal records, reducing them from felony to misdemeanor, or from misdemeanor to infraction.
“It was just a matter of dignity,” Gascón told the press.
But the step to help right the Drug War’s historical wrongs is also required by California law. Mass expungement and charge reductions have challenged many law enforcement agencies in what they say is bureaucratic complexity, but they are seen as central as part of the process of restitutions for eras of racially biased policing.
San Francisco is the first county in the state to announce full compliance with the record-change process stipulated by AB 1793, a regulation related to Proposition 64, the 2016 ballot initiative that legalized recreational marijuana in California that “requires automation of this process across the state” for charge reductions or expungements, Rodney Holcombe, Drug Policy Alliance staff attorney, told High Times.
Luckily, the City By the Bay, which has become a center of programming technology worldwide due to its proximity to Silicon Valley, found an agile partner to help with the alleged bureaucratic morass; a 501(c)3 non-profit named Code for America, which looks to link the public sector with technological solutions.
Code For America’s director Jennifer Pahlka told media representatives that it is now working with other California districts to identify cannabis cases that are eligible for expungement or reduction of charges. It is estimated that in Los Angeles alone, there are 40,000 felony convictions since 1993 that could be eligible for reduction or expungement.
San Francisco’s purge is an important step taken by a city that recently, has made national headlines for its prejudiced law enforcement. In 2010 and 2011, Black people comprised 6 percent of San Francisco’s population, yet they comprised half of arrests related to marijuana charges. In October, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against SF when it was found that its police officers were exclusively targeting the Black population in undercover drug operations.
In the absence of automated systems for dealing with past cannabis crimes, many San Franciscans had to hire lawyers and pay court fees to get their cannabis records cleared or charges reduced post-Prop 64. A grand total of 23 people were able to successfully complete the tedious and costly process over the three years prior to the DA’s automation partnership with Code For America, which was first announced in May.
State drug policy advocates hope that now that the technology has been identified, more expungements and reductions will be on the way. “My hope is that San Francisco will now consider automating other record-change processes so that folks are no longer subject to the retributive and often lifelong consequences attached to non-cannabis convictions,” said Holcombe.
Drug Policy Alliance deputy state director Laura Thomas hopes that the move will provide a model for other districts to take the lead on post-cannabis prohibition justice. “Even convictions from many years ago can have an impact on people’s lives now and this will ensure that doesn’t happen,” she commented to High Times. “We hope that other prosecutors around the country follow [Gascon’s] lead.”
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