L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced this week that nearly 66,000 convictions for marijuana crimes are being dismissed. The move is part of a statewide effort to retroactively undo some of the drug war's long-term damage.
Proposition 64, passed by voters in 2016 to legalize the recreational sale and use of marijuana, made it possible for people who have been convicted of old marijuana charges to have those convictions reversed and the records purged. A subsequent bill passed in 2018, A.B. 1793, ordered prosecutors across the state to review records eligible for relief under Prop. 64 by July 2020.
San Francisco County, under then–District Attorney George Gascón, announced in January 2018 that it was partnering with Code for America to create an algorithmic system to track down citizens who qualify for relief. The pilot program includes several other counties in the state, including Los Angeles.
According to Lacey's announcement,
Prosecutors this week asked a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to dismiss 62,000 felony cannabis convictions for cases that date back to 1961. The District Attorney's Office also sought the dismissal of approximately 4,000 misdemeanor cannabis possession cases that included cases filed in 10 Los Angeles County cities: Los Angeles, Long Beach, Torrance, Pasadena, Inglewood, Burbank, Santa Monica, Hawthorne, Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach.
For anyone interesting in how racially lopsided drug enforcement has historically been: 32 percent of the individuals getting assistance here are African American, and 45 percent are Latino. The Latino numbers match the county's demographics, but less than 10 percent of L.A. County's population is African American. By contrast, 52 percent of the county is white, but only 20 percent of the people getting their records cleared are white.
Code for America's involvement is invaluable. As Lacey's office notes, the existing process of clearing records is complicated, and otherwise each person must petition the court individually to get records expunged or convictions dismissed. Without these automated tools, only 3 percent of the people eligible for relief under Prop. 64 have gotten it.
The timing of the announcement is interesting. Lacey is up for re-election in March, and she's facing a challenge from Gascón himself: He has moved to Los Angeles and is promising to institute more reforms than Lacey has been willing to commit to doing. He has promised, for example, to stop pursuing the death penalty. Lacey won't take it that far, saying she wants the ability to execute the "worst offenders," such as child murderers and serial killers. (This is a mostly academic argument at the moment. California hasn't executed a prisoner since 2006, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has ordered a moratorium. But the state does still have more than 700 inmates on death row.)
ReasonTV interviewed Gascón last year when San Francisco turned to Code for America in help expunging records. Watch below: