Pubdate: Fri, 14 Feb 2020
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Christine Mai-Duc and Dan Frosch


Largest such move in California comes amid nationwide push for
criminal-justice reform and relaxing drug laws

Los Angeles County will vacate nearly 66,000 marijuana convictions
dating back to the 1960s, part of a growing national effort to reduce
drug convictions.

The move, announced Thursday by Los Angeles County District Attorney
Jackie Lacey, will dismiss convictions for tens of thousands of
individuals, the majority of whom are black or Latino.

"As a result of our actions, these convictions should no longer burden
those who have struggled to find a job or a place to live because of
their criminal record," Ms. Lacey said in a press conference Thursday.

She said she believed it is the largest mass dismissal of cannabis
cases to date in California. Of the cases, about 62,000 were felony
convictions that prosecutors asked a Los Angeles Superior

Court to dismiss this week. Another 3,700 were misdemeanor possession
charges stemming from 10 L.A. County cities.

California voters legalized recreational marijuana use in 2016 with a
ballot measure that also made individuals previously convicted of
growing, possessing, selling or transporting marijuana eligible for
reduced sentences.

But the process for seeking relief from courts has been criticized by
advocates as onerous and so far only about 3% of those eligible
statewide have received it, according to nonprofit group Code for America.

A state law signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018 required the
California Department of Justice to compile a database of individuals
who may be eligible to have their old marijuana pot cases reviewed-a
number the department estimates to be about 190,000 individuals. Under
the law, counties are also required to review those cases by July of
this year, though not necessarily to dismiss any.

Ms. Lacey, who runs the country's largest district attorney's office,
had previously said her team wouldn't automatically clear drug
convictions. In a statement after Proposition 64's passage, Ms. Lacey
encouraged those affected to petition the courts "rather than wait for
my office to go through tens of thousands of case files."

But the process has moved more quickly since her office began working
with Code for America, which developed software that identifies people
who may be eligible to have past convictions overturned in states
where marijuana is now legal or will be legal. For more than a year,
the group has worked with five California counties-Los Angeles, San
Francisco, Sacramento, San Joaquin and Contra Costa-as part of a pilot
program to review old pot cases.

In 2019, then San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said his
office cleared 8,132 marijuana-related convictions as a result of the
pilot program. Last month, Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana
Becton said that her office would dismiss 3,264 marijuana

The L.A. County cases that were overturned resulted in approximately
53,000 people being cleared. Of those, 32% are African-American, 20%
are white, 45% are Latino and 3% are other or unknown, Ms. Lacey and
Code for America said.

With the pilot program done, Code for America has made its software
available to all of California's 58 counties.

The group is also teaming up with the top prosecutor in Cook County,
Illinois, which includes Chicago, to review old marijuana convictions

Ms. Lacey is running for re-election in a race in which her leading
opponent is Mr. Gascon, who left his San Francisco office last year.
He has said that she is not active enough on criminal-justice reform,
a key plank of his campaign.

A spokesman for Ms. Lacey's campaign said that Ms. Lacey began the
program that led to Thursday's dismissals last April. "The facts and
the timeline show that this decision was based on seeking justice for
all, not politics," he said.
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MAP posted-by: Matt