Posted on May 10, 2019
Undoing the Damage of the Drug War
A criminal record, even for something as seemingly minor as weed possession, can serve as a lifelong stain. A few states, in legalizing marijuana, have attempted to rectify the great disparity between the wealthy white men now coming in to push joints, and the disproportionately poor and black populations whose lives are still obstructed by the fact that they used to push joints, years ago. But actually getting your criminal record changed can involve enormous financial and legal hurdles. In the two years since California voters passed legalization, L.A. County officials estimated that fewer than a thousand people out of an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 who are eligible petitioned to change or clear their minor weed convictions.
“Often folks are having to petition courts on their own, which can be very time intensive and confusing,” says Rodney Holcombe, a staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance. “Not everyone has the resources to pay an attorney.” This has created the “second chance gap” — the inequity between those who can afford to get a pot crime off their record, and those who cannot. Now, for the first time, a few places are beginning to address this problem directly, with automated record-sealing. The turn toward automated record-clearing kicked off in Pennsylvania, where Sharon Dietrich, the litigation director of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, with the support of state senator Scott Wagner helped conceive of a Clean Slate law that would use an automated process to clear all non-violent first-degree misdemeanors and most simple assault convictions more than 10 years old from people’s records.
Each state has its own system of storing criminal records and of sharing that information between agencies. While one place might easily be able to run an algorithm that finds every instance of a specific criminal code within a given field and then instantly repopulate that field across every record in the state, others have discrete, siloed databases that could require painstaking work. “Too often, government folks think, ‘OK, technology is involved, therefore I must write a thousand-page proposal that contains 7,000 different features and take it to the government contracting ecosystem and like five years later someone will give me a technology solution,’” Jennifer Pahlka, executive director and founder of Code for America, says. “And what we have been saying is, ‘No. Go to the database, change the record.’”