California courts would face a deadline to implement expungements for past cannabis-related convictions under a bill introduced in the State Assembly on Wednesday.
The legislation sponsored by State Assemblymember Mia Bonta would require courts to update case files for marijuana-related convictions and transmit them to the California Department of Justice by January 1, 2023, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. The state justice department would then be required to use the information from the courts to update its records by 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, the landmark 2016 voter initiative that legalized recreational marijuana in California, included provisions to carry out expungements of convictions for cannabis-related offenses no longer illegal under state law. Further legislation passed in 2018 required the state to take the lead on clearing past marijuana convictions.
But a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed earlier this month that the courts have still not processed the records for at least 34,000 cases. 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.”
No Expungements Progress in Some Counties
Some counties, including Los Angeles and Santa Clara Counties, have made significant progress in clearing past cannabis convictions. But the investigation found that some counties have not yet fully processed any cases eligible for expungement, including Riverside County, where 21,000 cases await action. Another 5,400 cases in San Bernardino County have not been cleared. The delay comes despite the counties receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in state funds allocated to process 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. Additionally, the legislation requires the state justice department to head a public awareness campaign to inform those affected that their records have been cleared and they no longer have to disclose their past convictions. The measure also expands eligibility for expungement to some conspiracy convictions where prosecutors have the discretion to charge an offense as either a felony or a misdemeanor.
Bonta said that expunging past convictions for cannabis-related crimes is needed to address the harm and racial inequities caused by cannabis prohibition.
“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 legislation is also supported by the Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit dedicated to advocating for the release of all people incarcerated for cannabis 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.”
So far, no groups have expressed opposition to the legislation. 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.”