Earlier this year, at the annual Washington Cannabis Summit, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee announced his Marijuana Justice Initiative which provides for faster pardons for people with a single cannabis conviction. “We should not be punishing people for something that is no longer an illegal behavior in the state of Washington,” the governor said. “Those convictions can impair their ability to finance a house, it can impair their ability to get a shot at a good job, it can stop them even from taking their kids for a field trip.”
Friday we launched our Marijuana Justice Initiative, and today I signed the first set of pardons. This effort will help relieve the burden of misdemeanors for marijuana possession and allow people to move on with their lives. #marijuanajustice https://t.co/5eRNbUm1X3 pic.twitter.com/ksgENCnmqX
— Governor Jay Inslee (@GovInslee) January 10, 2019
The initiative is small – only about 3,500 people are eligible. But it is one of a growing number of reforms taking place at local and state levels across the country seeking to right the wrongs of the disastrous War on Drugs.
Decriminalization is a crucial facet of cannabis legalization that often goes unnoticed compared to dispensaries popping up in your city or large open fields of cannabis being grown in Northern California.
Decriminalization and expungement are related but differ in important ways. Think of decriminalization as present and future looking: a government decides henceforth that it will no longer prosecute individuals for possessing cannabis. And think of expungement as past looking: a government allows past convictions for cannabis possession to be expunged, thus no longer having any legal effect. These concepts can also be applied to other crimes and drugs besides marijuana.
Long-Term Consequences of Criminal Record
People with a conviction suffer from the long-term consequences of a criminal record. They already suffer the short-term consequences of a fine or jail time, but having a criminal record means that any time a potential employer or landlord asks if they’ve ever been convicted of a crime, they have to say yes. A background check would show the conviction even if they said no.
This often leads to individuals facing serious difficulty in finding a job or a place to live, which unfairly punishes them for decades after a conviction, potentially pushing some back towards criminal activity.
The effect of expungement may differ from state to state, but generally, it means that the conviction has no legal effect and would either not show up in a criminal record search, or if it did show it would also show that the conviction was expunged.
War on Drugs
The War on Drugs has left lasting damage on countless individuals and has cost the United States billions of dollars. Between 2001 and 2010, over 8 million arrests were made nationwide for cannabis possession, costing states $3.6 billion in 2010 alone. Black people were nearly four times as likely as white people to be arrested for cannabis possession, despite both groups using the drug at the same rate.
Governments are starting to wake up to these issues. Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced last month that her office would no longer prosecute cannabis possession cases. In Colorado, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced in December a citywide effort to expunge over 10,000 cannabis convictions. California lawmakers approved a measure last year that would either reduce or erase almost 220,000 cannabis convictions, including some felony convictions. Note that like Washington, Colorado, and California already legalized cannabis, but as you can see, legalization does not necessarily erase the many thousands of past convictions.
Which brings us back to Washington State. Governor Inslee’s Initiative, while a step in the right direction, would affect a mere 3,500 people and still requires those individuals to submit the petition themselves. People with other convictions would not be eligible and would have to go through the normal clemency process, even if they had just two cannabis possession convictions. Washington was one of the first states to legalize cannabis, but it did nothing for the many thousands of Washingtonians with cannabis convictions.
Breaking Cycle of Crime and Poverty
Two bills are currently being considered in the Washington legislature related to vacating criminal records, a term analogous to expungement. HB 1500 allows for all cannabis misdemeanor offenses to be vacated. HB 1041, also known as the New Hope Act, smooths and improves the process for vacating many nonviolent convictions, not just cannabis related ones.
Earlier this month, the New Hope Act was approved by both Democrats and Republicans. It will now make its way to the floor of the Washington House of Representatives. If these bills are passed into law, they will allow people who have already done their time in prison and paid their financial restitution to more easily vacate the records at an earlier time. It will allow them to apply for a job or an apartment while legally stating they’ve never been convicted of a crime. It will allow parents to go on field trips with their kids and volunteer at their kids’ schools. And it will be a step towards breaking the cycles of crime and poverty that is so pervasive in our society, particularly among our working class.
More importantly, it’s not just the convicted that suffer. Dominic Jones is a 15-year-old high school sophomore who testified in January in support of the New Hope Act. He’s the son of Tarra Simmons, chief writer of the New Hope Act, who is an attorney and was formerly incarcerated. “Children are silent victims of the laws you guys create,” Dominic said,
“It’s bad enough that the children have to suffer when their parents are locked up, and right now it doesn’t stop there. After my mom was in jail I had to stay with her ex-husband for a while, and even after she got out nobody would rent to us, so I had to stay with him, and she was lucky enough to find a place. After that, it took her a while to find a good job, and we really struggled. She was homeless for a while. She’s always wanted to be a part of my life and go on field trips with me, but she’s never been allowed to go on field trips or even volunteer in my classes.”
Advantages of Expungement Reforms
Expungement reforms would not just benefit the underprivileged or their families, it would benefit everyone. A more inclusive society keeps those with criminal records from being alienated, lowers the likelihood of reoffending, and reduces the prison population. This is increasingly a bipartisan issue.
We are not advocating for people who commit crimes to not face any consequences. We are advocating for them not to have to suffer a lifetime of consequences, and to actually provide them the opportunity to reintegrate into society, something we already demand of them.
We cannot erase the dark past of the War on Drugs or the many related tough-on-crime laws, but we can seek to alleviate some of that damage. Whether or not a community wants to legalize cannabis, every city and every state in this country should cease prosecuting cannabis crimes and pass laws allowing for the formerly incarcerated to more easily reintegrate into society.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.