Marijuana expungement is an often laborious, bureaucratic process, but algorithms have eased the process.
Following marijuana legalization, states and cites have emphasized correcting the records of those affected by the War on Drugs. An estimated 20 million people were arrested for a marijuana-related offense over the past 30 years. When individuals have cannabis convictions on their record, it limits their opportunity to acquire employment, access stable housing, and participate in their children’s school activities.
While cities like Seattle have offered opportunities for individuals to clear their records, the process is often laborious and bureaucratic. Take San Francisco, for example. In 2017, the city announced more than 9,000 residents were eligible to expunge marijuana convictions from their records. But only 23 people petitioned for that to happen.
“The way the legislation was written really kind of put it all on the people that had been convicted,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón told Reason. “It didn’t prohibit us from doing anything about it, but then it also didn’t spell out that you should.”
As Gascón explained, those able to take advantage of expungement were those already “well off” and “sophisticated” enough to jump through the necessary hurdles. But the San Francisco District Attorney believes the government should play a more active role in assisting “people that were harmed by decades of bad policy.” In other words, to make a kind of reparations.
That’s why Gascón recruited Silicon Valley to help with the process. He partnered with Evonne Silva, Code for America’s senior program director, and her team, which aims to clear a quarter million cannabis convictions in California before 2020. Silva’s team created an algorithm that combs through prior convictions and flags any cases possible for expungement. Then, the program automatically follows the paperwork on the individual’s behalf.
“The difference is, it on average takes an attorney 15 minutes to review one criminal record and evaluate eligibility and prepare the paperwork,” Silva told Reason. “We were able to process over 8,000 convictions in San Francisco in a matter of minutes.”
Other California jurisdictions plan to follow San Francisco’s lead and partner with Silva’s team, which is part of Code for America’s Clear My Record campaign. Los Angeles and San Jose are among the participating cities, but the program eventually aims to take its efforts nationwide.
“The technology is actually really simple. It also starts to shift the way in which people relate to their government, because now this is a service provided [by] government as opposed to government being seen as an obstacle,” Silva said.