San Francisco will retroactively apply marijuana-legalization legislation to past criminal situations, District Attorney George Gascón said Wednesday -- expunging or diminishing misdemeanor and felony convictions going back decades.
The unprecedented move will impact thousands of individuals whose marijuana convictions brand them with criminal histories which can hurt odds of finding jobs and getting some government benefits.
Proposition 64, which state voters passed in November 2016, legalized the recreational use of marijuana in California for those 21 and older and permitted the possession up to 1 ounce of cannabis. The law also allows people who have past marijuana convictions that could have been lesser crimes -- or no offense at all -- under Prop. 64 to request a court to remember or discount their cases.
As opposed to leaving it up to people to petition the courts -- which is time-consuming and may cost tens of thousands of dollars in lawyer fees -- Gascón stated San Francisco prosecutors will review and wipe out convictions en masse.
The district attorney said his office will discount and seal over 3,000 misdemeanor marijuana convictions in San Francisco dating back to 1975. Prosecutors will also examine and, if necessary, re-sentence 4,940 felony marijuana instances, Gascón explained.
"Rather than waiting for people to petition -- to your neighborhood to come out -- we've decided we will do so ourselves," Gascón explained. "We think it's the ideal thing to do. We believe it's the just thing to do."
Advocates for poor and minority communities have complained that marijuana laws are applied disproportionately to the impoverished and individuals of color. A 2013 research from the American Civil Liberties Union found that African Americans were more than two times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as whites, despite comparable levels of use.
In San Francisco, African Americans were twice as likely as whites to be arrested for possession, the analysis found. A marijuana conviction can affect whether someone qualifies for federally subsidized housing, student loans and disability insurance.
"This is a giant step for justice," Brown said Wednesday. "And it is a step toward setting black people free to live in the community, to have jobs, to get health care, to have an adequate education, and we just need to keep this good thing a-rollin'."
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, nearly 5,000 people statewide have petitioned courts to have their marijuana convictions expunged since Prop. 64 took effect. In San Francisco, however, fewer than two dozen people have done so, Gascón said.
His office is believed to be the very first in the state to proceed to clean old marijuana convictions, Gascón said. The majority of the work will be done out of courtrooms, and those affected won't be asked to show up for court.
Misdemeanor clearances will begin instantly, but felony cases "will take a little more time," Gascón explained.
People who have been convicted of felony marijuana counts that were tied to other crimes may not be qualified to have their instances expunged under Prop. 64. Gascón said he'll have a restricted number of attorneys and paralegals going over such cases at first, but might assign more based upon the workload.
"It's evolving," he explained. "It will be a lot of work, and we will evaluate as we begin reviewing felonies."
Prosecutors will also need to coordinate with the state attorney general's office to be sure cases are upgraded in the state system.
Gascón said he hopes his job will prompt other jurisdictions to follow suit.
"We are trusting what we're doing here won't only benefit San Francisco," he said. "We're hoping other elected officials across the country will say that this is the right thing to do."
On Jan. 9, Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, introduced a bill that will make it a lot easier for many individuals statewide to have marijuana earners. The legislation, AB1793, would "allow automatic expungement or reduction of a prior cannabis certainty"
However, the amount of such convictions throughout California over the years runs in the millions. Opponents of the bill have stated ordering associates to expunge them on a wide scale could cost millions of dollars.