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California Bill Filed To Accelerate Cannabis Conviction Expungements

California court would have to comply with a Wednesday State Assembly bill that requires expungements of cannabis convictions. 

According to a report by the The, the legislation that Mia Bonta sponsored would oblige courts to amend case files regarding marijuana-related convictions by transmitting them to the California Department of Justice by January 1, 20,23. Los Angeles Times. The information would be used by the state justice department to amend its records before July 1, 2023.

“California made a promise. I’m focused on making sure that California keeps its promises,” said Bonta. “This bill would allow us to automatically seal qualifying cannabis criminal records.”

Proposition 64 was the 2016 landmark voter initiative which legalized recreational cannabis in California. It included provisions for expungement of criminal convictions not illegal under state law. The state was required to clear past cannabis convictions by additional 2018 legislation.

But, a Los Angeles TimesAn investigation earlier in the month revealed that at least 34,000 cases had not been processed by the courts. Under Bonta’s bill, the state Department of Justice would be directed to update the records if prosecutors or the courts fail to meet their prescribed deadlines.

“By default, the record would be sealed if the case is eligible,” said Bonta. “There are 34,000 people in the state of California… who are not able to truly and fully live their lives because there has been a failure to fully implement the law.”

Some Counties Have Not Made Progress on Expungements

Los Angeles and Santa Clara Counties made notable progress clearing cannabis convictions. However, the investigation revealed that Riverside County has not completed processing any eligible cases for expungement. There are 21,000 cases awaiting action. San Bernardino County still has 5,400 cases to be cleared. These delays are despite hundreds of thousands of dollars of state funding that were allocated for processing the records.

“The court has begun working on these cases, and resources permitting, intends to complete the work by July 1, 2022,” said San Bernardino Superior Court spokesperson Julie Van Hook.

Bonta’s bill also requires the Judicial Council to collect data on cannabis conviction expungement and make regular public reports on the state’s progress. In addition, Bonta’s legislation mandates that the state justice division lead an awareness campaign informing those affected about the fact their records have been expunged and they are no longer required to divulge their previous convictions. It also allows for the expungement of certain conspiracy convictions that were not cleared by law. This is because prosecutors are free to choose to either charge an offense with a felony, or misdemeanor.

Bonta indicated that the only way to end the harm caused by prohibition of cannabis is to exonerate past cannabis-related convictions.

“Black people, people of color, especially were targeted by the War on Drugs,” said Bonta. “[The bill] is in a sense a form of reparations.”

Los Angeles County Deputy Public Defender Nick Stewart-Oaten, a board member of the California Public Defenders Association, applauded Bonta’s proposed legislation.

“For decades, the justice system quickly and enthusiastically destroyed the lives of men, women, and children accused of nonviolent marijuana offenses—this bill simply requires the system to act with similar enthusiasm and speed when giving the formerly convicted back their lives,” Stewart-Oaten said in a statement.

The Last Prisoner Project supports the legislation, which is a non-profit dedicated to promoting the release of anyone incarcerated in California for marijuana offenses. Gracie Burger, the group’s state policy director, said in a statement that Bonta’s bill would “ensure that California delivers on its overdue promise to those harmed by the War on Drugs.”

The legislation has not been opposed by any groups. Riverside Superior Court spokesperson Marita Ford wrote in an email that the “court doesn’t really have any comment on the pending legislation but if it is passed, we will of course ensure compliance.”