San Francisco uses technology to wipe out over 9,000 past cannabis convictions

San Francisco will become the first U.S. county to use technology to help expunge its citizens’ cannabis convictions, the city’s District Attorney’s office announced Monday.

The city will dismiss over 9,000 cannabis convictions that date all the way back to 1975.

“This makes San Francisco the first county in the country to complete the automated record clearance process,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said in a statement.

The move comes after California legalized recreational cannabis in November 2016 with the passing of Proposition 64.

After its passing, individuals had to come forward themselves and petition to have their past crimes overturned or reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor.

It was a complicated and time-consuming process that involved hiring an attorney, Gascón said, and only 23 people had completed the process.

Last year, Gascón announced his office was taking the initiative to sift through old cannabis convictions dating back to 1975 to find those eligible under Prop. 64.

However, the process was cumbersome. His office managed to identify 1,230 eligible misdemeanour cases.

In May, Gascón decided to team up with Code for America, a nonprofit that uses technology to improve government processes, to speed up identifying cases.

Code for America developed the algorithm “Clear My Record”, which cut the lengthy process down to minutes and found 8,132 cases.

9,362 eligible cases have been found in total between the algorithm and the office’s work, and they will be presented to a judge in the coming weeks for expungement.

Studies have shown that cannabis convictions have disproportionately affected the poor and people of colour. A 2013 study by the American Civil Liberties Union found African Americans in San Francisco were more than four times likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people.

“Using technology, we have been able to proactively bring greater racial equity and fairness to marijuana legalization in California,” Gascón said in a press release. “In San Francisco, approximately 33 per cent of all dismissed convictions involved African American people, and 27 per cent involved Latinx people.”

Cannabis convictions can limit access to housing, loans and employment opportunities, the DA explained.

“If you are the mom or dad who wants to participate in the kids’ school activities and they’re being told you can’t go to that field trip because you have a felony conviction because you sold a nickel bag in the Tenderloin 10 years ago, that’s the people we care about,” Gascón said.

Cases prior to 1975 can still be dismissed by the district attorney, but those involved in those cases must contact the DA’s office to initiate a review.

Code for America said it is working with several other California district attorneys to identify eligible cannabis convictions in their counties.

“Contact with the criminal justice system should not be a life sentence, so we’ve been working to reimagine the record clearance process,” Code for America founder and executive director, Jennifer Pahlka, said in a statement. “This new approach, which is both innovative and common sense, changes the scale and speed of justice and has the potential to ignite change across the country.”

Gascón says that other counties and states are following San Francisco’s suite and offering similar relief to their communities.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said.

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