Thursday: The promise of automatic record clearance. Also: More on the victims of the catastrophic boat fire, and remembering Sally Floyd.
When California legalized marijuana in 2016, Ingrid Archie celebrated.
Then it was time to file paperwork.
Ms. Archie was among the thousands of Californians eligible to have cannabis-related convictions reduced or cleared from their records under provisions of the new law that not only made the possession of marijuana legal, it also mandated that penalties for minor offenses that were no longer crimes be retroactively eliminated and that some other convictions be reduced.
Those provisions have been hailed by criminal justice experts as a sign of California’s progress when it comes to criminal justice reforms and are intended to correct for years of disproportionate arrests and convictions for drug offenses, particularly in black and Latino communities.
The nagging problem has been how to implement such sweeping reforms.
“You may not have the transportation to get to the courthouse for the past conviction — to get the paperwork, and then you have to get to a lawyer,” Ms. Archie said, noting that when you’re arrested, convicted and sentenced, everything is done for you, automatically.
“It should be automatic for redemption as well,” she said.
In California, Code for America, a nonprofit that works with the government on tech solutions, says it may have a solution.
In recent months, the organization partnered with five district attorneys’ offices around the state to identify and automatically reduce or dismiss eligible marijuana convictions, including thousands in San Francisco and Los Angeles as a pilot program.
This week, leaders of the company announced the rollout of a new software application that they said will make that capability available to any district attorney in California.
The technology works by reviewing tens of thousands of case lines within seconds to identify ones that are eligible for dismissal or reduction.
“The difference between the pilot and the application is that for the pilot counties we had to go on site to be able to process the data for security reasons,” Alia Toran-Burrell, a program manager with Code for America. “The 53 remaining counties will be able to do that on their own.”
Code for America leaders said the application could be used to identify other types of convictions that may become eligible for reduction or clearance down the line and could be used in other states. Already, the nonprofit announced a partnership to use the program, called Clear My Record, in Cook County, Ill.
Criminal justice experts said that while automatic record clearance sounds straightforward in theory, the reality is much messier.
Jeff Reisig, the Yolo County district attorney, said that he welcomed the new application.
His office automatically dismissed 728 eligible marijuana convictions using the application — work that he said wouldn’t have been possible to take on without the help of a nonprofit tech partner.
“I don’t have any confidence at all that this kind of project could’ve been accomplished at the state level by government at even a fraction of the speed,” Mr. Reisig said.
He cited a study from the Stanford Criminal Justice Center that found the inconsistencies in data collection and transparency across California’s various courts, prisons and prosecutors’ offices make it difficult to implement and evaluate criminal justice reforms.
“That’s the challenge of something like this,” he said.
But he acknowledged that, as a result, the benefits of automatic record-clearance technology could leave people in some parts of the state behind.
Prosecutors have until July 2020 to review eligible marijuana cases and decide whether to dismiss the sentences, dismiss them and seal the cases so they can’t be seen, or whether to challenge the reduction of some convictions.
Which means that district attorneys — some of whom are serving in counties where there has been resistance to marijuana legalization — have discretion over the law’s implementation.
That lack of cohesion is mirrored on a national scale, said Margaret Love, a lawyer based in Washington, D.C. who has tracked record clearance and rights restoration efforts around the country.
“Every state has some scheme like this and none of them are the same,” she said. “The technological solution that Code for America is bringing to bear is great, but boy, is it limited.”
Ms. Love said that because California has specifically identified the kinds of convictions that are eligible to be cleared, it’s “easy pickings.”
That still leaves the more difficult — but ultimately more effective — work of figuring out how to ensure that people who have served their sentences are still able to get jobs and housing without being discriminated against for old offenses.
For Ms. Archie — who grew up in South Los Angeles and spent her earlier years in and out of prison mostly related to lower level drug offenses — knowing that future employers or landlords won’t be able to see a felony marijuana conviction on her record brings peace of mind.
Today, she works for A New Way of Life Reentry Project, a nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated women, including herself.
That stability is something she wants other people who have past convictions to experience, too.
She wants them to be able to rent apartments, find work or go on field trips with their children.
“It should be everyone’s reality to know that when somebody types their name in a system that their charge doesn’t come up because, guess what, their time is done,” she said. “They should be able to move forward.”