More than a year after the state legalized recreational marijuana, more than 9,300 convictions for marijuana-related offenses in San Francisco dating back as far as 1975 have been expunged, District Attorney George Gascon announced Monday.
Gascon’s office has already automatically expunged 1,230 marijuana-related convictions and, through a pilot program in partnership with the organization Code for America, another 8,132 convictions are being cleared.
The organization was able to speed up the process by creating an algorithm that determined the eligibility for thousands of convictions. The move, which brings the number of sealed convictions to 9,362, makes San Francisco the first county in the nation to complete the automated marijuana record clearance process.
“We often say that we believe in giving people a second chance as a society, as a community. But then everything we do really speaks against that: We keep people from getting employment, we keep people from getting good housing, we keep people away from getting education, we keep people away from participating in the education of their kids, and then we wonder why people re-offend when we marginalize them at such an extent,” Gascon said. “Our African-American population is under 5 percent. But if you look at our convictions for marijuana, 33 percent of the people we convicted are African-American. Twenty-seven percent were Latinos,” he said. “Drug use in this country occurs across economic and racial lines. But the people who end up being the subjects of the criminal justice system’s attention are poor people and people of color, and there is nothing just about that,” he said.
Gascon said he hopes the move will put pressure on other prosecutors throughout the state and country to do the same. “The records clearance process in California just wasn’t designed for 2019. It wasn’t designed for 2000 or 1980. It was a petition-based process, very costly, very cumbersome, and it was very difficult, as you know, to provide people relief under Proposition 64,” said Code for America Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka.
The Code for America team started looking for ways to streamline the process starting in 2015.
“What the team did was sort of turn the process on its head and re-imagine it from the bottom up, instead of from the top down, a very cumbersome process.”
Pahlka said her team then realized it “could work with bulk data, run the basic technology algorithm on that data and essentially determine eligibility for thousands of convictions in literally just a few minutes, as opposed to what would’ve been months or even years.
“This has eliminated the need for the petition and eliminated the DA’s staff from having to go through the records one by one, which would be too enormous an obstacle,” she said.
Proposition 64, the 2016 state ballot measure that legalized the possession of recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older, included a provision allowing people with past marijuana convictions to petition the court for reduction or dismissal of old convictions.
After it went into effect starting in January 2018, Gascon announced that his office would begin working on expunging the records. Now that the records have been cleared, no action on the part of the individual with the record is required.
“It sounds very simple, when you talk about bulk records and running an algorithm, but it is an enormous amount of work that goes on to actually get access and be safe and correct in all of these things. But we believe that the work that’s happened over the past several months creates a real blueprint for the future,” Pahlka said.