As our nation struggles with unprecedented challenges to its democratic foundations, there are also new bright spots in the years-long campaign to reform our racist criminal justice system. Recently, prosecutors in San Francisco, Baltimore and Chicago pushed this debate into new territory. They committed to not only stop prosecuting marijuana possession, but to also clear decades’ worth of past marijuana-related convictions.
More prosecuting attorneys must commit to automatic expungement programs like these. California should lead the charge.
It’s now widely understood that the defining policies of the War on Drugs – mandatory minimums and the 1970 classification of marijuana as among the most dangerous of drugs – have legitimized a criminal “justice” system that has left over 70 million Americans, disproportionately black and brown people, with a criminal record.
Across the criminal justice system, black people are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white people. With this comes all of the lasting impacts of incarceration, including the stigma of a criminal record, separation from families, suspension of driver’s licenses, excessive court and bail fees – in addition to the denial of employment, housing and voting rights.
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Years of work by a growing and emboldened criminal justice reform movement, including by my organization, Color of Change, have successfully educated lawmakers and the public about this racist system. We’ve elected district attorneys who know that the criminal legal system is racist and who will leverage their positions to transform it.
Some district attorneys are even moving into the difficult but necessary work of restorative justice. In San Francisco, District Attorney George Gascón has launched a partnership with the nonprofit Code for America to identify and advance cases eligible for cleared or reduced convictions. Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx in Chicago have both announced similar plans to expunge some past convictions.
Unfortunately, some areas of California noticeably lag behind. Even after the passage of Assembly Bill 1793, which requires prosecutors to expunge convictions or reduce sentences for marijuana-related convictions, Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey has so far refused to do so. She’s ignoring the will of the people.
Lacey claims that it would be “faster” to have those with felonies petition her office than for her office to sort through all the convictions. This assumes that those most often impacted by the War on Drugs – low-income, Black people – have access to the legal and financial resources to do so, or have even been informed of AB 1793’s passage and impact. Isn’t it the responsibility of the prosecutor’s office to rectify the racist and overly severe policies of their past rather than to shift this burden to the victims of such policies?
Other establishment prosecutors, such as District Attorney Mike Ramos of San Bernardino County, have claimed that expungement is dangerous because they won’t be able to use prior convictions to inflict harsher sentences if people break the law again. This just proves how badly these expungements are needed. These convictions are the basic fuel of mass incarceration, trapping people into years-long sentences that are out of proportion to any danger posed.
District Attorney Lacey should immediately implement comprehensive expungement for all those swept up during decades of racist, unjust and needless marijuana policy. We urge other prosecutors across the state to follow suit and move quickly to expunge not just marijuana records, but any and all convictions that are eligible. They must recognize their responsibility in causing this crisis, and leverage the power they have to heal it. It’s the least they can do.